“Female espionage on the Galapagos islands” is a heck of a tagline. But readers hoping for an action-packed page-turner may be disenchanted by “Enchanted Islands,” a historical novel by Allison Amend with the pace and plotting of a multi-volume memoir.
As a spy thriller, the book fails spectacularly. But as a portrait of a woman’s lifelong search for intimacy, it glimmers gently, with a humility to match its subject.
The novel begins in a retirement home where its narrator, the plain and pragmatic Frances Conway, plays second fiddle to her childhood friend Rosalie, a selfish but indomitably cheery woman “able to clear a mood like sweeping a porch.”
Before we settle in with them, Amend hurtles back in time to detail Frances’ girlhood in Duluth, Minn., as the daughter of Polish immigrants, her adolescence (and first romantic betrayal) at a Zionist press in Chicago, and her 20s homesteading with a suffragette in Nebraska.
The one constant in her life is Rosalie. Throughout the book, Frances struggles with jealousy and frustration toward her friend even as she craves her attention.
Although these facets are interesting enough on their own, the novel grinds unsteadily through its temporal gears until it arrives at Frances at 50, now a secretary for the Office of Naval Intelligence just before World War II. Here, the plot begins in earnest: years of fading into the background and out of touch with old friends have transformed Frances into an ideal (if unlikely) intelligence agent.
Her first assignment? Marry intelligence agent and “confirmed bachelor” Ainslie Conway and set sail for the Galapagos isle of Floreana, where the two will live off the land and survey their fellow survivalists for potential German spies.
They make an odd pair: a Jewish woman in the midst of Hitler-loyal Germans and a military man with a penchant for gay lovers and strong drink. Still, Frances clings to every scrap of affection Ainslie offers.
“I would never really know him,” she muses, “but I would know him more than these people, and his confidence, our shared secret, grew at the bottom of my chest in a way that I could only describe as love.”
Their relationship — and the spy games that deepen and define it — drive the book to its climax. But the novel at times moves at the pace of a Galapagos tortoise, burdened by too much biography and too little action. The Conways don’t alight on their island home until over halfway through the book; Frances’ espionage is confined to one harrowing encounter.
This seems to be more a failure of marketing than talent. Amend excels on other, quieter fronts: in her sensitivity to both the virtue and emptiness of solitude, in her portrayal of romance without attraction, in her attention to how deprivation more often stunts than ennobles.
And Amend’s prose subtly exploits the tension between Frances’ two worlds. While in San Francisco, Frances longs for the humble labor and lush landscapes on Floreana.
While on the island, she can’t help but view her surroundings through the city’s lens: “There,” Amend writes, “hundreds of iguanas stared at me placidly, like men having coffee at a train station.”
“Enchanted Islands” is best approached not as a spy novel but as a sweeping, complicated ode to nonsexual intimacy and female friendship. Pick it up for its untidy emotional landscape. The physical landscape — the enchanted isles’ scratchy deserts, vine-tangled tropics and soaring sea views — is just a bonus.
Reach Liz Cook at email@example.com.
“Enchanted Islands” by Allison Amend (320 pages; Nan A. Talese; $26.95)