It's comforting to imagine that aliens placed those inscrutable
statues on Easter Island. Such a theory protects us from the more
haunting implications about human nature. The tiny island, 2,300
miles west of Chile, was settled around 400 A.D. Its early
inhabitants - with or without extraterrestrial assistance - carved
more than 600 giant faces from volcanic rock and then dragged them
to the shore. Some weigh almost 90 tons.
In her gorgeous debut novel, "Easter Island," Jennifer Vanderbes
has attempted something equally ambitious, and her success is almost
as baffling. How can an unknown writer tell three stories across 60
years, balancing romance, botany, feminism, archeology, military
history, academic politics, and civil rights for the handicapped in
just 300 pages? The press release refers to a degree from Yale and a
stint at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, but I suspect alien
The novel shifts chapter by chapter between the stories of two
women, while also tracing the doomed retreat of German Vice Adm.
Graf von Spee at the opening of World War I. Any summary risks
making this all look like a tangle of unrelated events, but
Vanderbes displays Mother Nature's genius at spinning a web of life.
In 1913, Elsa Pendleton has lost both her parents and finds
herself the guardian of her 19-year-old sister, Alice, who is
mentally handicapped. Their father was an enlightened academic who
spent his life (and his fortune) fighting to defend the freedom of
"feeble-minded" people at a time when England was moving toward
forced sterilization and institutionalization.
Without him or any money of her own, Elsa consents to a marriage
of convenience with an archeologist, a much older colleague of her
father. The arrangement is peculiar, but apparently agreeable to all
involved. Elsa's husband treats her like a beloved niece, never
presuming on her affection or expecting any marital intimacy.
Their honeymoon, with Alice in tow, is an expedition to Easter
Island, under a commission from the Royal Geographical Society.
Though it's a 12-month voyage to a speck in the Pacific Ocean
without any modern conveniences, Elsa is thrilled with the prospect
of adventure, which has the added benefit of removing her sister
from their increasingly intolerant homeland.
Exploring this unusual sibling relationship takes Vanderbes into
a region more foreign to most readers than anything they'd find on
Easter Island. The intensely private, beautifully intimate moments
captured here between these sisters are, in fact, like nothing I've
read anywhere else. But Vanderbes perceives this unique relationship
with the kind of insight that eventually sheds light on the
evolution and design of all relationships.
Elsa has grown up in a state of "constant vigilance" to maintain
her sister's safety. Alice is a funny, frustrating, unpredictable
young woman, but Elsa's sense of duty "has produced in her a
seriousness that makes others uneasy" and blinded her to the costs
of trying to shield Alice from any unhappiness. …