By Alexis M. Smith
Hardcover, 244 pages
2016, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
In a world rebuilding itself after the devastation from massive earthquakes, Lucie returns to her hometown of Orwell Island and neighboring Marrow Island, the site of her father’s death. The tire factory he worked in went up in flames during the quake and her father’s body was lost; the resulting fires destroyed much of Marrow Island, making it uninhabitable due to contamination in the soil and water, but after 20 years there is a small group of people living on the island once more. Katie, Lucie’s former best friend, writes to Lucie from the Colony, inviting her to the small island. Lucie accepts, perhaps out of curiosity, for closure or from a journalist’s perspective, but what she finds there changes her life and that of the residents of the Colony.
This book is hard to describe and very tough to review because I have mixed feelings about it and frankly, I’m not sure I understood the message.
Smith had me interested at first; she uses dual timelines – one for Lucie’s experiences on Orwell and Marrow and another about a year later as she deals with the aftermath of events. This isn’t always a device I enjoy, but I think Smith used it well. In reading the “future” chapters, I understood that Lucie was deeply affected by what happened on Marrow Island and that built up some suspense when I was reading the chapters of her on the island. I also enjoyed that this book was semi-post-apocalyptic, but rather than pure destruction and weird competitions designed to keep a portion of the society downtrodden, Smith gave us a glimpse of how our own society might actually regroup and evolve after a natural disaster.
I was tingling with anticipation as the story crept forward – it’s certainly a slow burn, with a focus on Lucie’s thoughts and relationships rather than plot. But I felt the net closing in as Lucie began to explore Marrow and the lives of those in the Colony, especially her friend Katie’s. There was a definite creep factor and I kept guessing what would happen. I believe “mushroom worshipping murder cult” came up in a discussion I had with my friend who was buddy reading with me.
The vibes from the residents of the Colony were strange and I was into it, but suddenly I realized the “payoff” had come and gone and the big event on the island happened and I’d barely noticed. Lucie was then off the island and moving forward with her life, the chapters now only dealing with current events. I was left puzzled, thinking surely, there’s more to come, something that will make me go “ah!” or at least relieve the confusion I felt.
So I read on, the feeling that I was missing the point coming over me – I certainly didn’t understand how Smith wanted me to feel or the point she was trying to make. Yet I still enjoyed the odd, unsettling tone of her writing and while Lucie wasn’t quite compelling as a character, I didn’t dislike her.
Then the story ended.
So did any goodwill I had towards this book.
Not only did I not understand the ending, but it made me downright mad. Suddenly, the whole book felt like a waste of time, especially because I stayed up past midnight on a work night to finish it!
Congrats to Smith, though, because I’ve never had this reaction to a book before. Typically I’m indifferent throughout the majority of a book, or it’s clear I dislike it. But this book had no payoff for me and the only satisfaction I received from finishing it was throwing it on the floor in anger.
The more I think about the ending, the more disappointed, confused and angry I feel. The book was left so completely unresolved that it ruined the entire experience for me. Unfortunately, I can’t say I recommend the book, though I do still respect Smith’s voice, I just think her style is not for me.
Since my friend Mel and I each won copies of this book from HMH’s Instagram giveaway, we decided to buddy read it. Here are her thoughts:
“Overall, I’d have to say that this book was a little disappointing. For the sake of spoilers, I don’t want to say too much about the plot, which, oddly enough, is exactly what the author did. I felt Smith was too vague about what happened in the past and what was happening throughout the story and that left me disappointed when the story ended. At first, I was intrigued and curious about where Smith was going with her idea, but unfortunately that curiosity was not satisfied. When the book ended I was left wondering what actually took place and how it occurred. I would give the book 2 out of 5 stars because the lack of conclusion really let me down.”