I requested Enchanted Islands off NetGalley after the stunning cover caught my eye. Once I read that it was a WWII espionage story set on the Galápagos Islands, I was sold! Soon after I was approved for a review copy, I saw that it was featured on Oprah.com list of Books to Read if You Love Fierce, Smart Women… How could I not read this?
Author: Allison Amend
Genre: Historical Fiction > WWII Fiction
Publisher: Doubleday Books
Inspired by the midcentury memoirs of Frances Conway, Enchanted Islands is the dazzling story of an independent American woman whose path takes her far from her native Minnesota when she and her husband, an undercover intelligence officer, are sent to the Galápagos Islands at the brink of World War II.
Born in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1882 to immigrant parents, Frances Frankowski covets the life of her best friend, Rosalie Mendel, who has everything Fanny could wish for—money, parents who value education, and an effervescent and winning personality. When, at age fifteen, Rosalie decides they should run away to Chicago, Fanny jumps at the chance to escape her unexceptional life. But, within a year, Rosalie commits an unforgivable betrayal, inciting Frances to strike out on her own.
Decades later, the women reconnect in San Francisco and realize how widely their lives have diverged. While Rosalie is a housewife and mother, Frances works as a secretary for the Office of Naval Intelligence. There she is introduced to Ainslie Conway, an intelligence operator ten years her junior. When it’s arranged for Frances and Ainslie to marry and carry out a mission on the Galápagos Islands, the couple’s identities—already hidden from each other—are further buried under their new cover stories. No longer a lonely spinster, Frances is about to begin the most fascinating and intrigue-filled years of her life.
Amid active volcanoes, forbidding wildlife and flora, and unfriendly neighbors, Ainslie and Frances carve out a life for themselves. But the secrets they harbor from their enemies and from each other may be their undoing.
Drawing on the rich history of the early twentieth century and set against a large, colorful canvas, Enchanted Islands boldly examines the complexity of female friendship, the universal pursuit of a place to call home, and the reverberations of secrets we keep from others and from ourselves.
Enchanted Islands is the fictionalized life of Frances Conway, a real person who lived on the Galápagos Islands for a few years during WWII. Drawing inspiration from the journals & memoirs of Frances & Ainslie Conway, Allison Amend fabricates a compelling fictional story full of drama, friendship, remote island living, secrets, espionage, and so much more. I would like to point out that it was never proven one way or another if Frances & Ainslie Conway were indeed spies sent to the islands to spy for the U.S in real life… there was only speculation. Their real memoirs do not mention anything about spying, nor being sent there by the U.S. military for any purpose. Enchanted Islands is a FICTIONAL account of real people. Were Frances & Ainslie spies in real life? Possibly.
I want to go ahead and get something out of the way: the book synopsis for this one is a little misleading. Enchanted Islands is technically WWII historical fiction, but doesn’t really go into the details of the war. It is also technically an espionage story, but it isn’t exactly action packed… Was I disappointed with these facts? Surprisingly, no. This book was such a different take on WWII fiction that focused less on the historical aspects, and more on the characters’ lives during this time. While I guess it can still be considered historical fiction, this book leans more towards contemporary. Furthermore with a title like “Enchanted Islands,” I assumed that the majority of this book would take place on the Galápagos Islands, but in reality the majority of this book is the before & after of Frances & Ainslie’s stay on the islands.
Enchanted Islands is very much Frances’ (“Fanny”) story. As our main character, the story follows Fanny’s life from growing up very poor in Minnesota in the 1880s, to running away from home at 15 for new opportunities, to being a burnt out 50-year-old who takes a job working for Naval intelligence as a secretary in San Francisco, to moving to the remote Galapagos Islands with a new husband 10 years her junior. I always felt invested in the plot and where Fanny’s live would take her next. Fanny was such a wonderful character. I respected her quest for knowledge, her independence, her strength, her ability to adapt, her resourcefulness, and her loyalty. I can definitely see why she was featured in Oprah.com list of Books to Read if You Love Fierce, Smart Women. I also enjoyed how one of the lessons we can take from this book is that you are never “too old” to change your life, or start anew.
Enchanted Islands explores different types of relationships & love. The two big relationships being Fanny’s friendship with Rosalie, and her relationship with Ainslie. Fanny’s relationship with Rosalie was very well done in my opinion. Why? because it felt so realistic and believable. Most friendships are far from perfect and have their ups and downs. People make mistakes and mess up, friends forgive and forget over time. This was the type of friendship between Fanny & Rosalie. At the end of the day, Fanny & Rosalie’s relationship proves to stand the test of time. Fanny’s relationship with Ainslie also proves to be a complicated one. I really cannot reveal too much about their relationship without giving anything away, but it really was fascinating to watch their relationship grow & change into what it was at the end. It is very clear they loved each other, though it wasn’t exactly in the way you imagine in the beginning.
I can see why some may be disappointed with Enchanted Islands with the misleading synopsis and even a misleading title. With a title like “Enchanted Islands” you would expect lush descriptions of the islands, but unfortunately it just wasn’t there. This would be my only criticism of the book, that I wished the author would have spent a little more time setting the scene on the island.
My recommendation would be to go into this book expecting less historical context and think of it more as a historical contemporary. Setting aside all expectations, this was a really good book. I really wish more people would give it a chance. Enchanted Islands would make an excellent selection for a book club discussion. There are so many different aspects to discuss.
*Trigger/Content Warning: child sex abuse*