Allison Amend’s Enchanted Islands Is a Gripping Demonstration of Introversion

Amend has imagined in lush detail the lacunae of Frances Conway’s memoirs

Allison Amend’s Enchanted Islands is as bewitching as the title suggests; this lush and captivating tale of friendship, marriage, and espionage follows Frances Frankowski, born to Polish immigrant parents in the 1880s in the Midwest, from Milwaukee to San Francisco, and eventually to Galapágos, where she acts as a government spy in the years preceding World War II. Amend’s writing is spellbinding, and her characters are complicated and richly conceived. Whether in Frances’ relationship with her best friend, Rosalie, or with her husband, Ainslie, Amend captures the nature of intimate relationships, their beautiful complexity and tragedy together. Amend’s work is based on the real life memoirs of Frances Conway, and her relationship with her husband, Ainslie. Amend’s characters’ deepest connections include profound hurt, and yet the island becomes a catalyst for Frances’ growth — she must learn to accept that pain and risk come with companionship. In this tale that touches many genres, Frances comes of age, befriends a complicated girl with her own problems, escapes both poverty and hard circumstances, earns an education and a living, finds purpose and adventure on a deserted island — in her fifties — and learns that love doesn’t always feel happy. Amend tells a good story, and she tells it beautifully.

Amend’s characters’ deepest connections include profound hurt.

“Friendship between women is complicated,” Frances tells us early, as Amend establishes the frame of a best-friend story that will enclose Enchanted Islands’ lengthy flashback. When we meet Frances, she is living with Rosalie in an assisted living facility. Frances has held her secret for decades about her life on the island with Ainsley. Even at their advanced age, we see the tension and competition between friends:

A belch of jealousy burbles up inside of me. Rosalie is to be honored. It was always thus, that Rosalie was in the spotlight while I sat in the wings, but this in particular galls me. I am the one who truly served my country during the war. I am the one who stayed in a marriage for the sake of my country, who came close to losing my life for it. And I can tell no one.

Early in the story, Amend allows Frances the complexity of both negative and positive feelings toward the same thing. Rosalie is as close as a sister, and yet Frances resents her. This sets the tone for what become the two intertwining threads of the story: Frances’ relationship with Rosalie, forged in youth and built upon an early betrayal, and Frances’ marriage to Ainsley, who turned out not to be who Frances thought he was. Each of these relationships mirrors the other. Frances’ life is told in reaction to a series of shocks; early on she is not an observant character, and this allows those close to her to use her trusting nature to act on their own demons. But Frances’ growth comes not from learning to notice all that is around her; instead, Amend helps her to realize that it is her choice of reaction that will dictate what comfort she is allowed. And in Enchanted Islands, Frances learns to value friendship that matters more than betrayal.

Frances’ complication makes her one of the best introverts in recent fiction.

The first third of Enchanted Islands is about Frances’ desire to flee. Frances helps Rosalie escape a situation where she’s being sexually exploited, but as the two try to build their life together, Rosalie hurts Frances deeply, and Frances leaves. Thus begins her pattern of running as far as she can get, and it is therefore not a surprise when she accepts the opportunity to create a false life on the other side of the world. “[W]e’ve rescued ourselves,” the girls contend when they first run, and yet Frances has to learn not just to run, but to be alone, to accept what is and let go of what could be. It is not until she takes on a marriage proposed by the government that she learns to rely on herself. Frances sees herself from the beginning as an observer. “I have always been a rather quiet person,” she says, “content to observe rather than participate, and my reticence grew with age so that by the time I reached my early fifties, an age at which women stopped being noticed, I blended into the scenery as neatly as a camouflaged iguana.” And yet, her inability or unwillingness to realize the truth about those around her is both a major theme and a stumbling block to her happiness. Frances’ complication makes her one of the best introverts in recent fiction. Amend’s characterization of the protagonist feels as rich and vibrant as her descriptions of the island. It is worth mentioning here, too, that female protagonists over 35 are rare in contemporary fiction, especially women over 35 whose lives have purpose beyond stereotypes or saccharine conclusions; that Frances is over 50 for the bulk of the story and is rich with complication makes this vital tale even more of an enjoyable read.

The uncertainty of spying allows Amend to push her characters’ comfort with truth. When Frances learns a secret about her husband — on the island, after they have been married for some time — she questions how she has allowed herself to accept a false version of the man who is, ostensibly, her best friend. The Conways are spies, yet Amend uses them to show how we all construct a version of the truth. Frances asks herself:

Should I have known or guessed? Probably. But do not forget I was lying to myself about so many things. Lies were my entire life at that point. I had lied about my real name, my religion. I lied about being ready to travel halfway around the world to an island on the edge of nowhere. Ainsley and I lied to everyone we met, and when there was no one to meet, we lied to ourselves.

If this were a tale told by a lesser author, it would end with reflections about betrayal, and Frances would get what she deserves in the way of a happy resolution. Yet Amend allows her not to see betrayal as the end; this feels more representative of what true love is in relationships — a choice, even in the face of disappointment. Ainslie tells Frances: “We don’t get what we deserve,” and yet that’s not an admonition or a command to give up. Ainslie, too, suffers in a world where he cannot be who he really is, and he understands that disappointment isn’t limited to any one group of people. Characters in Enchanted Islands choose companionship over the idea of perfection, and Amend renders this over and over with aplomb.

Amend’s work in Enchanted Islands is never syrupy-sweet or didactic, and yet it becomes a tale of self-reliance and hard work. Amend’s work sings on a syntactic level, and she imagines lush detail into the lacunae of Conway’s memoir. Frances educates herself, lives alone in a time when it was rare to do so, and takes on a completely foreign lifestyle. “It seems that with enough practice, we can get to know just about anything,” she says. These are fully conceived characters who will stick with you long after you finish the book. Amend shows how friendships change over decades, and how much we need other people. Frances and Ainsley forge a life on the island from nothing — both in their habitat and in their relationship. Amend’s characterization of their marriage, though conceived and arranged by the government as a means to an end, becomes an honest and mature take on companionship. “I loved him,” she says, “I knew him better than any other being, and he me. This was intimacy, the like of which I’d never known except with Rosalie, and even that relationship was fraught with secrets. We can know each other deeper than mere facts. We can love each other deeper than our actions.”

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