Review: The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman

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Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date read: January 22 to 27, 2014
Read count: 1

This is a book for book clubs, which is fine since it’s advertised as such and even got a stamp from Oprah herself. What I like about that is it doesn’t lead you to believe it’s anything other than a book written to be discussed in book clubs. I like to call them “book club bait” because book clubs just love ’em.

The story is about a WWI veteran, his wife, a lighthouse, an infant, and some moral complications following the couple’s decision to keep the child and raise her as their own. The veteran, Tom, marries a young woman, Isabel, and takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, on the tip of Antarctica, south of Australia. The scenery and life on the island are described in lovely flowing language that takes on a sweeping effect that’s so often found in turbulent historical fiction romances. The only thing steering this story away from becoming another sweeping romance is infertility. Tom and Isabel have trouble conceiving and suffer through many miscarriages which leave them childless. The truly crushing thing here is they are on an island in the middle of the ocean with only each other for comfort. What follows is lovely flowing language about isolation, desolation, melancholia, and ultimately hopelessness. Isabel spends much of this period weeping, and Tom spends all of it trying to console her.

Just when all hope seems lost, a “miracle” happens in the form of a boat washing up on the beach carrying a dead man and a living child. They name the infant Lucy, and together they become a family. Every few years, the couple return to the mainland to visit friends and family and gather news of the world. This year they bring Lucy along only to find out that she has a mother, stricken with grief and madness, who still searches for her and her dead father. And issues of debatable morality ensue.

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* * * * spoilers below * * * *

I liked the story up to this point and thought I’d like the rest of it too because the writing is really good, but the “issues of morality” that ensued got in the way, and the story gradually unraveled.

The characterization of Tom and Isabel stopped making sense when the couple ran into the age-old problem of whether or not to return the child to her biological mother, who is a distant relative of theirs, even though she wasn’t mentally well (due to having lost both husband and child). While I understand the moral complications on both sides of the problem, I don’t sympathize with Tom and Isabel’s actions or the consequences they faced (and also avoided) following their decision to keep Lucy, then return her, only to give her back again. Like I said, this story unraveled bit by bit.

And it was around this point that the story lost that sweeping, melancholic, lovely, descriptive atmosphere of Janus Rock that M.L. Stedman so skillfully set up earlier. The spell broke for me when Tom and Isabel reluctantly decided to return Lucy (the first time), reasoning that the child would be better off in their care. Reality and consequences are often jarring, and the changes in tone and atmosphere of the story to reflect just that are well done, but what’s left of the story more or less falls apart as this saga turns into melodrama (and treating the child like a game piece).

The time was post-WWI, and the world had never had a “shortage” of orphans, especially not after big wars. If Isabel wanted to be a mother that badly, she and Tom could have visited orphanages on any one of their trips to the mainland. But here’s my biggest problem with this story. Legal adoption isn’t even considered an option between the spouses. Then again, there’s no reason to bring it up in the story when you could have your main character, and supposedly most sympathetic POV, spend most of her time weeping, rejecting the reality of her life, and feeling sorry for herself. And also, why even consider anything else when a “miracle” child, along with her conveniently dead father, washes up on the beach. Why even bother finding the child’s mother–she must also be conveniently dead, like the father, anyway–when you could make the best of such tragic circumstances by keeping her. Also convenient for Tom and Isabel? Paperwork, such as birth certificates, weren’t such a hassle back then in the 1920s.

Originally I had plans for a longer critique of why this book and others like it don’t do anything other than manipulate readers’ emotions. I still have a copy of that longer review somewhere, but decided not to post it. Here’s why: I am not a parent and I have no plans to become one, and because of that, I don’t fully sympathize with Tom and Isabel’s predicament. Even after discussing this book with other book clubbers (some are parents, many aren’t), I still don’t understand the motivation behind Stedman’s characterization choices. I understand what she was aiming for and her decision to tell this story. I just don’t understand why the story had to be told in this particular this way.

It’s so obvious this book was written for the purpose of book club discussions. “Issues of morality” tend to liven things up when ideologies clash and people’s true “fundamentalist values” surface, and usually what follows is a colorful exchange of words. I don’t show up to book club meetings unless a book I like is chosen, but I always show up when “bait” books are chosen because they make for very interesting discussions. And this book did not disappoint.

Recommended for anyone who’s always wanted to live in a lighthouse or in the middle of the ocean or both, but isn’t sure if such a life would suit him or her. This book might help you make that decision.

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