As I read On the Island, I found myself growing ever more addicted to the story. This teacher-student romance set on a desert island is one of those books that really shouldn't work. Yet, it does. It really does. Though not without flaws, there's just something about this book that makes for fun, compelling reading. This quality might explain why Penguin/Plume picked up this self-published novel and reissued it, and might also explain why MGM recently optioned it for a movie.
The story opens in 2001 as thirty-year-old teacher Anna Emerson meets sixteen-year-old cancer survivor T.J. Callahan in the airport and prepares to travel with him to the island of Male. T.J.'s parents are already on the island and they have hired Anna to tutor T.J. over the summer so that he can catch up on some of the work he missed while he was ill. We learn that Anna has spent 8 years in a relationship with a man who won't commit even though she has made it clear she wants a marriage and family. T.J., on the other hand, seems a lot like a normal teenager, albeit one who wants to catch up on all the things he's missed.
This all changes when the pilot of Anna and T.J.'s seaplane suffers a heart attack and crashes near a desert island. Anna and T.J. end up having to learn their way around their small island and must depend on one another to survive. It's a pretty bleak picture at first. They don't have much more than the clothes on their backs and the island seems to be devoid of everything except breadfruit and brackish water. However, the two manage to find some resources and through trial and error, learn some basic but important survival skills. The story ranges over several years and we see Anna and T.J. move from a teacher-student relationship to a friendship and finally into a romance. It's a plotline that I wasn't sure would work for me, but the way that it was written made the story compelling rather than creepy.
One thing that made the story work was its format. The book is told in chapters which alternate between Anna and T.J.'s points of view. Getting inside both of their heads definitely set this book apart from others for me. We have front row seats to the mental and emotional maturing that both go through and that is absolutely crucial to this particular story. Anna definitely sees T.J. as a student/child at first and there are reasons for the change in perception later on that make sense under the circumstances, and this shift would be too improbable if we did not see both characters' points of view. Though the plotline might hit a hot button for some readers, the way in which this book is written definitely makes it something other than a "teacher taking advantage of underage student" scenario. The age difference between the leads does cause some issues between them, but they face these problems head on and handle them in a mature fashion.
The characterizations helped as well. Neither Anna nor T.J. is perfect, but their characters are very likable. Each one comes to the island at a crossroads trying to decide what it is he or she wants out of life. In struggling to survive, they both change for the better and become stronger as people. This transformation is as much a reward as the love story.
All of this is not to say that the book was completely free of issues. For one thing, the dialogue in the book can feel a little wooden at times. The story flows in the sense that I got sucked into the story and couldn't stop reading, but even as I read, I still couldn't help rolling my eyes at some of the conversations between the characters. The plotting also caused a few eyerolls for me. Writing a story set on a desert island where there isn't a lot happening would definitely be challenging and an author would have to make things happen to her characters just to keep the story moving. However, some of these happenings strained credulity more than I could stand without snickering. I don't want to put any complete spoilers in this review, so let's just say that there are a few plot points that might make readers burst out laughing in places where the author clearly didn't intend them to. The shark scene was definitely one of those for me.
Even with its flaws, I still read On the Island in one day. It's definitely cheesy and campy at times, but somehow the best parts of this book go beyond that. This short novel is a compulsively fun read, and even as I recognized weaknesses in the writing, I still loved the story. The characters are likable and I found myself rooting for them all the way to the very sweet ending of the book.
-- Lynn Spencer
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