By Allison Amend
Hardcover,306 pages, Nan A. Talese, 2016
Reviewed by Shirley Baugher
Have you ever dreamed of spending time on a faraway island with the person of your dreams? Well, Frances Conway did just that, and later wrote about the experience in her memoirs. Midwestern author Allison Amend, inspired by Conway's recollections, framed a novel around them which she called Enchanted Islands, the story of an independent American woman whose path takes her far from her native Minnesota when she and her husband, an undercover intelligence officer, are sent to the Galápagos Islands at the brink of World War II.
Born in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1882 to immigrant parents, Frances Frankowski covets the life of her best friend, Rosalie Mendel, who has everything Fanny could wish for - looks, money, parents who value education, and a personality that charmed everyone she met. But Rosalie wanted more, in part to experience the world outside Duluth, and in part to escape the horrifying situation in which her parents have placed her. Rosalie decides she and Frances should run away to Chicago. She arrives on Frances's doorstep with her carpetbag packed and gives her friend an ultimatum - now or never. Frances chooses now, knowing she will have to support both of them since her parents had forced her to quit school and take a secretarial course. Rosalie, of course, has no skills-only her looks and personality. All goes well, for a while; then, Rosalie commits an unforgivable betrayal and Frances strikes out on her own.
Years go by before the women reconnect in San Francisco where Rosalie has married a very wealthy man and become a mother. Frances, now 55, works as a secretary for the Office of Naval Intelligence. She is introduced to Ainslie Conway, an impossibly handsome intelligence operator ten years her junior. Because both are unattached, the Navy arranges a marriage between Frances and Ainslie and sends them on a spying mission to a Galápagos island to determine if the Germans are planning to construct a military base there to advance Hitler's plan for world domination. Both Frances and Ainslie are hiding personal secrets from each other, which are revealed on the island. No longer a lonely spinster, Frances embarks on the most fascinating and intrigue-filled years of her life, while Ainslie is reveling in the not so glamorous life of a spy.
Life on the island is harsh: the couple have to grow their own food, build their lodging, get by on the barest necessities, and befriend the few German inhabitants without giving away their cover. Despite the difficulties, Ainslie and Frances carve out a life for themselves and come to love each other. War does come, and their paradise is lost, of course, when the war ended the course of their life on the island, their secrets are revealed to the world and to each other with significant consequences. Of course Frances and Rosalie reconnect and their troubled relationship goes on to its inevitable conclusion.
Enchanted Islands is both a history lesson and a look at a controversial time in American history. It examines the complexity of male and female relationships, the desire to find a place to call home, and the repercussions of secrets we keep from others and from ourselves. It's a good read, and one you will not soon forget.