Visions of Paradise

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Easter Island

I bought the book Easter Island, by Jennifer Vanderbes, partly because of its premise, and partly because the reviews sparked my interest. It turned out to be a good decision on my part, and more proof that instinct is worth trusting when buying books.

In many ways, the book resembled the writing of Andrea Barrett with its strong portrayal of scientists engaged in research and scientific speculation. While this premise might not appeal to all readers, you should know that stories about passionate artists and scientists are among my favorite type of fiction, much more so than my interest in the art or science itself.

Easter Island consists of two strands which are told in alternating chapters. While there are connections in the two strands, both in their parallel development and in references made in one to the other, they are primarily separate stories told on the same theme.

The first story takes place during World War I. Elsa is a 22-year old involved in studying linguistics. She lives with her father and her 19-year old sister Alice who suffers from a combination of mild autism and very low intelligence. When their father dies, Elsa realizes she cannot possibly care for Alice herself, which would cause a crisis in her life except for the intervention of Edward. Edward is a 55-year old bachelor scientist, best friend of Elsa’s father, who offers to care for both girls. The best way to do this in the Edwardian social climate is for him to marry Elsa. Their relationship is primarily formal, with no physical contact for over a year.

Elsa and Alice accompany Edward to Easter Island, where the trio spends several years. Edward studies botany while Elsa studies linguists in the form of ancient native writings which she is trying to decode. There is much melodrama in the situation, such as Alice becoming extremely jealous of Edward who shares a tent with Elsa, while Edward falls in love not with his wife Elsa but the younger sister Alice. Fortunately, Vanderbes restrains her writing so that the melodrama does not become either hysterical or overbearing, and does not interfere with the more important story of the twin scientific studies of Edward and Elsa.

The second story takes place in contemporary times. Greer is a botany student at a midwestern college whose teacher Thomas is a brilliant and renowned researcher. They fall in love, eventually marrying, while he continues serving as her doctoral advisor. For a few years they are involved in a race to discover the first flower (magnolias being the leading candidate) with scientists at another lab. This race is similar to the race for the nature of dna in Watson’s book The Double Helix, and I found it both fascinating and thrilling. However, Vanderbes also shows the dark side of scientific research as Thomas is involved in a scandal and subsequently dies of a heart attack.

In an attempt to regain control of her life, Greer travels to Easter Island to do research on botany. Vanderbes explains through Greer why Easter Island’s isolation in the Pacific Ocean makes it a prime candidate for historical botanical research.

Greer’s adventures on the island are more scientific, with almost no melodrama, although she had enough melodrama during her years with Thomas– perhaps a bit too much, as I found a few questionable scenes in that portion of the novel.

Overall Easter Island is a strong book if you enjoy scientific research. It is not strictly speaking a historical novel, since even the World War I parts only had a few historical references to them. While not as strong as Andrea Barrett’s best works, this book sits comfortably besides them on the bookshelf.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home