Friday, February 1, 2013

Historical Fiction: The Light Betweeen Oceans by M.L. Stedman

M.L. Stedman's The Light Between Oceans was the winner of the 2012 Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Historical Fiction, beating out my personal favorite for the category, Laura Moriarty's The Chaperone. It wasn't ever on my list of books to read until I saw it at Half Price Books and decided to take a chance on it.

The Situation: Tom Sherbourne is the newest lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, just a half-days journey by boat from Point Partageuse, off the southwest coast of Australia. Naturally, being a lighthouse keeper is a pretty isolated life, but Tom is okay with that. After what he has been through in the war and with the family he hasn't spoken to in years, Tom is ready for a bit of solitude and welcomes the change. But he didn't expect to meet the young and feisty Isabelle just before he goes off for his first three-year commitment. Just as Tom, a man who relishes rules and order, has gotten used to running the lighthouse alone, he finds himself joined by a wife. And as Janus Rock now starts to receive a more feminine touch, Isabelle starts hoping for the presence of children as well. However, this desire is at first only met with severe disappointments. Three of them, actually. After two miscarriages and one still-birth, Isabelle is a shadow of the feisty woman she once was. But that is until a boat washes onshore with a dead man and a living infant. Isabelle believes this baby is sent to her by a God that wants to make up for her losses, and that she and Tom was sent to the baby to be her saving grace.

The Problem: This baby, whom Isabelle decides to call "Lucy," already has a mother who calls her "Grace." Neither Isabelle nor the rule-abiding Tom knows this, but their decision to keep the baby haunts Tom as they continue going about their lives while not acknowledging the obvious. It is only during a short trip back to Partageuse that they both find out the horrible truth - that their decision to keep the baby has left another woman heart-broken and somewhat insane. Eventually, not only does the real mother find out, but the entire small town of Partageuse hears what has happened. And the day that Tom has always feared, and that Isabelle hoped would never come, has arrived. Will Isabelle be childless once again? And will she be able to live another day if she is? And will the Sherbourne's be made to pay for their crime?

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical novel that is set around the 1920s on the southwest coast of Australia. While Tom is a veteran, and the subject of war does often come up, what is discussed even more is how that part of Tom's life lead him to taking care of the lighthouse on Janus Rock, despite the isolation, hard work, and harsh weather. Stedman explores what it takes to be someone who is willing to work almost completely alone out on a tiny island for three years at a time, with only the occasional visit from the supply boat to look forward to. And as it takes a certain sort of man to be a lighthouse keeper, it takes a certain sort of woman to be his wife and agree to share this life with him. Through Isabelle, there is the constant theme of motherhood, and how for some women, the desire to be a mom is so strong that it can become potentially dangerous. How far is too far when someone wants to start a family of their own but can't seem to make it happen? And what kind of affect can multiple miscarriages have on a woman who wants nothing more than to start family? Stedman also asks the question of what lengths human beings are willing to go to in order to keep believing their own lies.

My Verdict: I was so ready to be angry with this book, but Stedman ended it beautifully without making it an all neat and tidy "happily ever after" sort of affair. And while I didn't think I would be saying this, I have to admit that I can see why it beat Moriarty's The Chaperone for Best Historical Fiction in the Goodreads Choice Awards. Stedman takes an unoriginal premise and makes it completely her own. She takes the reader on an emotional journey that makes you angry, makes you worry, makes you question if following the rules is always the right thing to do, and ultimately, it made me reflect on the power of ones own desires. The only thing that kept me from giving this book four out of five stars was that sometimes the story was dragged out a little too much. I honestly think it could have ended about 50 pages sooner. But then, if Stedman did that, the suspense probably would not have been as powerful.

Favorite Moment: When Hannah, after being told her whole life what she should do in marriage, in her family life, etc, finally lashes out and asserts that for once she is going to do what she knows is best for her and decides to stop being goaded into putting everyone else's needs before her own, especially when they don't deserve it.

Favorite Character: I believe my favorite character would have to be Ralph. He is the skipper of the supply boat and a true friend. He doesn't have a huge part in the book, but he shows up for Tom and Isabelle right when they need a kind or wise word from a friend.

Recommended Reading: I know I keep recommending it, but I have to go with Moriarty's The Chaperone once again. It may not be quite up to the standard Stedman sets here, but it is still worth reading and I think anyone who enjoys this type of historical fiction will like Moriarty's book as well.

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