My first selection for the very first meeting of my new book club was almost a flop. When I announced that we would be reading The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman, the reaction was pretty positive. Everyone jumped into it with anticipation, not knowing how soon their excitement would turn into dread. The texts started mere days after the spines were cracked. “Does this ever pick up?” or “I’m struggling to get into the story.” and “Is this even worth finishing?”
Here’s the deal. I had read this book over the holidays and decided that, even though I wasn’t in love with the book, I thought it would illicit a great discussion with my group of friends. We all come from different backgrounds, with varying opinions and life experiences; how fascinating would it be to talk about love and loss and family and how we would handle tragedy? Turns out, not everyone has the same motivation.
I encouraged and pushed, and, eventually, most of them finished it. The inaugural meeting of the “Get Lit(erary) Book Club” kicked off with a decent group of 8. After the wine was poured, the discussion flowed. The wine selection for this meeting was chosen purposely based on the setting of our story – a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and a Chardonnay from Australia. (Just kidding. It was a complete coincidence; I am not that creative.)
What I found most interesting about this discussion is that even if we came together prepared to bash this book, in the end we all agreed that it was worth reading. (Even the ones who didn’t have the fortitude to finish it by the date of the meeting, ended up finishing it later.) It’s hard to tolerate an emotionally tragic story. Some of us have to force ourselves through it; others see the beauty of the words and can’t put it down. In this case I’d say that through hearing others’ reactions, the story became more appealing and helped get the stragglers over the hump.
Like I said, this was a tough one. You have a tortured man named Tom, who has returned from the war to take a job as a lighthouse keeper on a secluded Australian island in order to distance himself from people. Then, lo and behold, a young, bold woman, Isabel, inserts herself in his world and changes all that. He finds himself suddenly married and stuck on an island with this vibrant woman who he is madly in love with, but he doesn’t feel worthy of, due to his past. The first half of the book tells his backstory and it gets kinda boring. That’s where most people lose interest. I’m not quite sure I understand the point of such detail; I honestly think she (Stedman) could have cut most of that backstory and still got her point across.
The real kicker in all this is the fact that you know that there is going to be this major event in the story (because the book summary tells you up front) so you become frustrated with all the extraneous detail about Tom’s time in the war. If you can get through this, you are rewarded with the crux of the plot.
Basically, what you have here is a moral dilemma, a story about what happens when you have the choice between a “bad” and “worse” option. When all is said and done, either choice is going to hurt. I was moved by Isabel and Tom’s resilience in the face of such sorrow. I’ve never dealt with losing a child but after reading this I can say I have had a glimpse of the pain that comes from miscarriage after miscarriage. I cried for their broken hearts. So, when a baby washes up on the shore, I, like Isabel, was stunned. What does this mean? Obviously, it looks like a gift from above! Tom doesn’t see it that way. He thinks of the baby’s mother somewhere searching for her lost baby. (Why didn’t I, as a mother, think that way? Odd.) I can’t imagine making this kind of decision.
I don’t like to spoil the ending so I’m not going to tell what happens next. Instead, I am going to explain why I wanted to ask my friends to read it and talk about it. I wanted to know what they would do. I wanted to hear their reaction to the ending. I had to know who their favorite character was in the story. (Mine was Septimus Potts! What a great name.) As we talked through these questions, it became more and more clear that I did choose the right book. The more opinions, the better! These are the reasons I started a reading group – to inspire readers (including me) to stretch themselves, to read the genres that normally wouldn’t interest them, to add a little variety to their reading lists. This book was a little bleak, but there was beauty in it, too. I would wager to guess that we are all still thinking about it, haunted by the tragedy of it all.
Goodreads rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Not recommended on audiobook.