This is a sensitive portrayal of a marriage stressed by the toxic intermingling of illness and naivete — just the right conditions for a host of more pernicious pathogens to breed and transform both partners. We all imagine that someday we’ll be stoic patients or patient nurses, but Will and Marantha have positioned themselves to confront this challenge in a lonely place where everything is “smeared with mud and the very walls reeking of mold and rot and the sort of deep penetrating dampness no stove could ever hope to dry out.” It sounds grim, I know, but the intensity of Boyle’s narrative never lets it flag, and soon enough a story of decline becomes a desperate story of escape.
How striking it feels, then, when the second half of the novel opens decades later in comparatively sunny 1930. Another optimistic couple arrives on the island. The parallels are subtle and unforced. The eager husband, Herbie Lester, is a war veteran like his predecessor, though of World War I instead of the Civil War. Once again, wool from island sheep will weave their fortune. But this time, the wife, Elise, is just as enthusiastic as her husband. After the Waterses’ dismal decline, Herbie and Elise sound like Adam and Eve before the Fall: “That first week was an idyll, the two of them alone in an untamed place and nothing in the world to intrude on the slow unfolding of a peace and happiness so vast she couldn’t put a name to it.”