It is 1913. Elsa Pendleton travels from England to Easter Island with her husband, an anthropologist sent by the Royal Geographical Society to study the colossal moai statues, and her younger sister. What begins as familial duty for Elsa becomes a grand adventure; on Easter Island she discovers her true calling. But, out of contact with the outside world, she is unaware that World War I has been declared and that a German naval squadron, fleeing the British across the South Pacific, is heading toward the island she now considers home.
Sixty years later, Dr. Greer Farraday, an American botanist, travels to Easter Island to research the island’s ancient pollen, but more important, to put back the pieces of her life after the death of her husband.
A series of brilliant revelations brings to life the parallel quests of these two intrepid young women as they delve into the centuries-old mysteries of Easter Island. Slowly unearthing the island’s haunting past, they are forced to confront turbulent discoveries about themselves and the people they love, changing their lives forever.
Easter Island is a tour de force of storytelling that will establish Jennifer Vanderbes as one of the most gifted writers of her generation.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.65(d)|
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The decisive moment for Germany's fleet in the Great War was, indisputably, its ill-timed arrival at the Falkland Islands. Having avoided detection by the Allies for three months since the outbreak of hostilities, it was their great misfortune to head straight for the Falklands just hours after the British fleet put in to coal there. Had they borne in and launched an offensive, they would have caught the British in the disarray of refueling. Instead, and for unknown reasons, all eight ships, under the command of Vice Admiral Graf Von Spee, tried to flee. Compounding this fatal decision was atypical weather--a bright, cloudless sky hung overhead; there were neither the usual fog banks nor the low-lying squall clouds to afford even momentary concealment. The British, with their superior cruisers, were quick to pursue. From all sides gunfire bombarded the Germans. After three hours of battle, Von Spee's flagship, the Scharnhorst, turned over on her beam, heeled gradually to port, and slid into the icy Atlantic, a cloud of black smoke shooting up from the boilers as she submerged. Only a coal collier, which was later interned in Argentina, and the small cruiser Dresden, which was to be run down and blown up in three months, escaped the fiery battle. Within hours, the rest of the squadron met its fate at the bottom of the sea.
The question, then, is what brought about this decisive event. What accounts for Von Spee's untimely arrival at the Falklands? Why did he order his ships to flee? How did so gallant and skilled an admiral, a man known for his precision, bring about the destruction of the German East Asiatic Squadron and turn, forever, the tides of the Great War?
--Fleet of Misfortune: Graf Von Spee and the Impossible Journey Home
14th January 1912
My dearest Max,
I'm unsure as to where you are, but I'm sending this to Grete at Gjellerup Haus in the hopes she's had word from your household and will forward it.
Alice and I have found ourselves in quite difficult circumstances. One month ago Father passed on and I left my position in Lancashire immediately. Please don't be angry with me for not writing sooner. I needed time to determine in exactly what station this placed me and, I'm afraid to say, it's worse than I first suspected. How I should like to curse the textile industry and this endless muddle of strikes. The cost of Father's faith in English labour, it now appears, has been nearly his entire life savings. By my most modest calculations, the sum left can sustain Alice and me no more than six months. I cannot accept a new position unless I can bring her with me & even your extravagant letter of reference (indispensable demeanour? really, Max) cannot outweigh the obvious difficulty of Alice let loose in a respectable household. The solicitor, who looks to be younger than myself, seems convinced an impoverished twenty-two-year-old woman could not possibly tend to the needs of a nineteen-year-old. He "most emphatically advises," for Alice's welfare, for my own welfare, and for the good of the community, that I place her in one of the Crown's colonies at Bethlam or St. Luke's. Well, I, in turn, have told him in most unladylike terms that I should sooner lock myself away than Alice. Incarceration is the growing fashion these days. Even as I write this, the Feeble-Minded Control Bill is edging its way through both houses of Parliament. Progress--that's what the doctors and the legislators like to call it. If it passes, I'm not sure what we will do. Alice has only me, now, and I cannot let her down.
I know we made no promises to one another. But all this past year I was happy so long as I dreamed I might see you again. What could be grander than to think of you giving up everything and coming for me? Forgetting your responsibilities, your life, arriving on my doorstep with a handful of lilies from your garden. That was my hope, and how silly it now seems. Did you ever realize how childish I could be? But with Father gone, my sense of the world has darkened. I've lost the conviction that life eventually works itself out for the best.
I know your frustration at my position. I, too, wish things were different. But to be angry at my situation is also to be angry with Father. How can I blame him for trying to better our prospects? I hope you believe, as I do, that my education was a far more valuable gift than any investment. That I cannot do with it, as you have always wished, something more than help children conjugate verbs and crayon maps of the world, is simply the lot I have inherited. It is best that I accept it. Please don't think me weak for my resignation. I still share your spirit of fight, only I haven't the means to indulge it right now.
I am here in England and I've not had word from you for months. Your duties no doubt prevent you from writing, but no longer can I afford to hope you will one day appear at my door. We've always known you have obligations to your family & your career. What point is there in my wishing you will awake one day able to extract yourself from the life you've led for years? I understand clearly now that it will never happen--I will never again see you.
I cherish the time we had together. Not for a moment do I regret our conversations on that shaded bench, the walks in the garden--it still makes me laugh to think that you, of all people, know the name of every plant and shrub. Who would have suspected your love of nature? It's awful really; I cannot see a flower without thinking of you. But when you left, I could no longer stay in Strasbourg. I could not face your family alone, with only the faintest hope you might return for a day or two in several months.
I know you worry Alice will consume my life, and you think I must look after myself. And these past few weeks, in my mind I've listened again to all your arguments. But, dearest, I have to ask myself: what life? Alice is, in truth, the only companion I've ever known. For nineteen years she has been my life. To tend to her is to tend to myself. Please understand.
I suppose I must finally come to it: Professor Beazley (Father's colleague in the Department of Anthropology, and yes, the "jungle man" of whom I sometimes joked) has agreed to look after Alice and me. The University has granted him Father's position and he has made intelligent investments with his family's large estate (if only he could have advised Father) that should keep us quite comfortable. We are to be married within the month.
Will it really be so difficult to teach him a thing or two of charm? Perhaps a short lesson in the art of laughter? Never have I known a man so ill at ease; only reading and writing, and the occasional mapmaking, seem to relax him. Maybe if I constantly keep a book propped before him we might forge something of a normal house! No. Oh, Max, what is wrong with me? I shouldn't joke at his expense. After all, if he hadn't proposed--well, Alice and I would soon be wandering the East End. Can I really ask for more?
Max, please do not imagine I've chosen Professor Beazley over you. I have simply chosen to care for Alice rather than wait for the impossible. I wish I could tell you this in person, but I haven't that luxury. Perhaps this will make things easier for you. Perhaps you've always known this would happen. Long before I did, I think you sensed there was little hope for us. But for me this marks a change, a painful awakening. There is no one but you to whom I can write, no one but you who would understand.
Isn't it strange? I will be a married woman by the time this reaches you.
Elsa sets her pen down, folds the letter, and tucks it between the pages of her morocco journal. Edward will soon be home. She will post it in the morning, after he has left for the university.
Behind the tall glass windows of the sitting room, dusk is falling. Elsa stands, strikes a match, and lights each branch of the candelabrum. The shadows move across the curtains, the burgundy wallpaper, the thick lacquer of the walnut armoire. From every corner, elegance gleams. And carefully, like a child cautioned against sudden movements, she gathers her black skirt and inches toward the divan. Elsa still cannot consider this place home. It reminds her too much of the houses she has worked in, of the vast, chandeliered dining rooms, the cold carpeted entrance halls. In Strasbourg, in Max's house, she moved with even greater caution, always kneeling to straighten the corner of a rug, fluffing each gold-fringed pillow as she rose from the sofa, as though the prudence of her movements might make up for, or disguise, the negligence of her emotions.
As she settles on the divan, Elsa feels content with what she has written. Just the right balance of affection and firmness has been struck. She knows that the tone--so much more adult than her other letters--will surprise him. Now she is the one offering apologies. Max won't have expected her to end things; he has always known the depth of her feelings. But surely he will understand the circumstances. Even if it means upending his ideals about liberty, his belief that all objectives can be reached through ardor, skill, and determination. That was, after all, what he said he admired in her--her ardor. And it was what she loved in him. But of what use is it now? For all his sympathy, Max has never known what it means to be trapped.
She glances at her journal, the envelope's corner protruding from its pages. How odd that a few sheets of paper bear her decision, that at any moment she can hold them to the candle's flame, or never post them at all. But her decision is final, and has little to do with Max's knowledge of it. After all, it will be months before the letter reaches him. Perhaps it's for herself she has written, to understand once again her predicament, the unsatisfying idea of what now seems her future.
On the table beside her lies Edward's most recent book: The Indigenous Peoples of British East Africa. She extracts the ribbon marking her page and begins reading. The book so far engages her--and how nice, finally, to have the luxury to read such a comprehensive study. Religious practices, domestic life, transfer of property: to each of these Edward has devoted a detailed chapter. Father always praised his field research skills. The language, though, she finds too formal--A monthly ritual to grieve the dead allows adolescent members of the tribe to display emotion in the form of tears, yelps, or occasional song--but she hasn't told Edward so. "It's engrossing!" she has announced across the dinner table, the white tablecloth stretched between them like a snow-covered boulevard. "Edward, you really have known such excitement! You've seen such wonderful places." And she has watched a brief smile nudge the reserve from his face: "I am delighted, my dear, that your attention is captured by those studies which have occupied the bulk of my days. The world is filled with other wonderful places ready for study. Perhaps someday you can share in my endeavors. Really. I am touched, in the utmost, by your interest in my work." It is, thinks Elsa, the least she can do. And how could she not be intrigued by such far-off lands, and the faint promise he might take her to one?
In the center of the sitting room's carpet, Alice is sprawled on her stomach, drawing pictures. Her stocking feet, flung up behind her, crisscross in distracted excitement. Her long brown braid, Elsa's morning handiwork, has already unfurled into a riot of curls. Every few minutes Alice leaps up and rattles a picture in front of Elsa: "Beazley," she announces with a smile. From years of hearing their father use that name, Alice cannot be persuaded to call him "Edward." "Wonderful, dearest," Elsa replies. Then she straightens Alice's dress, tucking away the lacy edges that have crept up the bodice, the straps that have wandered out of place. A fortnight earlier, Alice lay slung across the chesterfield, her skirt twisted like a bedsheet about her waist, her stark white bloomers perforating the dark shadows of the room. When, returning from the university, Edward had stepped in to say hello, Alice's indecency startled him. She should at least prevent him further embarrassment. Now, beneath the fastidiousness of Elsa's hands, Alice squirms and sighs and huffs--the opening notes to her temper's looming aria.
"Allie, dear, I've an idea." Elsa whisks her expression into exaggerated delight. "Would you draw me another?"
Then Alice drops down, her black skirt ballooning, and begins again.
Of course, before Edward returns, Elsa will have to hide the drawings. They emphasize too strongly the hollows beneath his eyes, the crease of concern across his forehead; they will no doubt surprise him. "It's strange to say," Edward has remarked several nights earlier, "but you do make me feel so much younger." He is fifty-five and has never been married. An elderly woman has kept house for him for years, but the presence of two new women in his home clearly unnerves him. Each day, he consults Elsa about the curtains, the wallpaper, and the house itself--We shall arrange everything to suit you, Miss Pendleton. (Please, she reminds him, try to call me Elsa.) Edward seems as uneasy in this house as she is. It belonged to his parents, and fell into his hands as the only child when his father died. For the past fifteen years he has lived amid the brocade curtains and the china and the glistening cutlery of his childhood. But rather than growing accustomed to what has for so long surrounded him, he seems a guest in his own home. Only now, with the arrival of Elsa and Alice and their crates of pinafores and hats and yellow-back novels, does Edward realize he is not a visitor. He is the host, and his new role absorbs him. Anything Elsa touches or appears to avoid, he notes--The mahogany side table, I see, is not to your liking; of course it can be replaced easily enough. And perhaps you think the table linens should be a cheerier shade?--as though women were yet another foreign culture of which he has embarked on a study.
Reading Group Guide
Weaving together a pair of remarkable stories, debut novelist Jennifer Vanderbes explores the realms of love and anger, trust and betrayal, through the eyes of two exceptional young women living nearly a century apart who journey to the most remote island in the world—Easter Island. Though separated by time and circumstance, these women experience parallel turns of fate as their passions for knowledge draw them into all-consuming investigations of the island’s mysterious past. But what begins as scientific inquiries soon unearth frightening, personal revelations for both women, and as they unravel the secrets of this exotic locale, they must face their own haunting secrets. A story about two journeys of transformation, forgiveness, and, ultimately, redemption, EASTER ISLAND is a powerful debut and a wonderfully intriguing book to discuss.
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your reading of Jennifer Vanderbes’ EASTER ISLAND. We hope they will enrich your experience of this captivating novel.
1. Would you characterize Elsa and Greer as reflections of one another, or do you consider them to have significantly distinct attitudes and personalities? How might each woman’s storyline have played out in the other’s time period?
2. Elsa’s devotion to Alice is clear from the novel’s first page. Do you feel that Elsa has a realistic or naive perception of Alice’s disabilities? What does Alice represent to Elsa, besides being a devoted sister? Why do you suppose it's important for Elsa to maintain an image of Alice as pure and blameless?
3. Elsa’s tale ends with a spectacular “what if.” Describe your imagined outcome; were her final years tragic ones, or do you think she found peace at last?
4. Greer possessed keen deductive abilities as a scientist. Why do you suppose it was so difficult for her to realize her husband’s deception?
5. Discuss the parallel aspects of the novel's two storylines. In what ways are both women on a similar quest? In what ways do they both find themselves strengthened and defeated by Easter Island?
6. How did your interpretation of EASTER ISLAND’s epigraph, “The Legend of Hotu Matua,” shift after you had finished reading the novel?
7. Mahina is deeply religious, nurturing, and holding out impossible hope for a reunion with her husband. In what ways do her traits enrich the novel? Are her religion and Greer’s logic mutually exclusive?
8. Both Greer and Elsa find themselves immersed in mostly male worlds. How are these gender distinctions portrayed in EASTER ISLAND?
9. For Elsa, the arrival of Max brings both emotional and concrete consequences. How does your perception of him change throughout the novel, particularly in light of the letter that comprises one of the book’s opening scenes?
10. Both Elsa and Greer faced oppression by social convention. For Elsa, British laws might have required her to institutionalize Alice. For Greer, the role of wife versus lab assistant was difficult to navigate. Does Easter Island provide the liberation both women are seeking?
11. Why is Easter Island such an appropriate setting for these dual narratives? In what way do its remote, rugged characteristics reflect that of the novel’s main characters? In addition to being a work of fiction that blends historical and contemporary issues, EASTER ISLAND is also part travelogue. What did you discover during your armchair journey to this unique environment?
12. What are the similarities between Greer’s father and Elsa’s? What did each of these men teach their daughters about the world and its inhabitants?
13. What is your opinion of Professor Beazley? What do you believe his motivation in marrying Elsa was?
14. Consider the theme of survival in EASTER ISLAND. What is the significance of Greer’s poisonous spider bite? How might Elsa have “survived” living in England after her life-changing experiences on the island?
15. Greer’s paper, appearing in chapter twenty-nine, proposes that the construction of the moai led to the decline of the island's indigenous population. In what way does this irony reflect the life experiences of Elsa and Greer? What were their self-destructive “monuments?”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I like the writer's style and the book was easy to read. The island was described well and the people's thoughts were well-felt. However, the story (actually stories) dragged. I never felt they joined that well together and was disappointed in the endings. It wasn't a bad read, but not my favorite. I just kept waiting for something more to happen.
Impressive first effort by a new author, this is writing of a very high quality. It is a delicately woven narrative of several voices, intricately intertwined like fine lace, beautifully done. This book is still the most gracious I¿ve read, decidedly feminine. The characters are first presented in careful detail. It may even seem too slow until the travels and adventures begin. Then you understand the value of having learned so much about them while they lived in familiar surroundings of polite society. Then their paths and those of the other voices in the story begin crossing. The plots do twist, in ways at which I will not even hint. The book is filled with botanical details and colorful history about this most fascinating place. Easter Island is still a location to which few ever travel. Its mysteries, like those of these characters, come to life yet remain unresolved in the end. Highly recommended for the excellent quality of the writing, if for no other reason.
Easter Island by Jennifer Vanderbes is a good read for somebody that is fascinated by history and sciences of all natures. It is set up in a strange format, different than anything else I have read before, but it really adds depth to the historical fiction standpoint. The novel is set up mainly in two different points of view, divided by chapter, but the strange thing Vanderbes does is she adds a third point of view every five chapters or so. These extra sections are only between a few paragraphs to a few pages long, but they add a tremendous amount of information and historical value (the downside to this is that it also makes different parts of the book a little confusing. It takes you out of the characters mind when something important is going to happen). The majority of the story fallows the point of view of two separate women. Both on missions to crack open a secret that Easter Island has been holding deep within its soil and culture, as well as opening their eyes and hearts to new experiences and new loves (I can not really say much more than this without giving away major details of the plot).
For a first book, Vanderbes really nails down the mechanics as well as the imagery that you would expect to find in Pulitzer Prize winner (but that is would you expect from a novelist that graduated from Yale). Sentences like ¿In the darkness, the ropes lashing the corer to the horse¿s back looked like the threads of a giant cobweb floating in front of her,¿ which appear various times throughout the book, appeal to your sense of sight, but also adds deeper meaning worthy enough to be compared with the poetry of Dickinson.
The story overall flows very nicely, and has a rhythm hidden within the text. This is not a novel you can fly though. It is one you have to take at a steady pace to comprehend what is really happening. The story itself is not very long (around 300 pages), but I guarantee that it will take the same amount of time to read a Stephen King novel.
This is not a novel for people that like hard-hitting action and conflict that drives the story. The book starts off fairly slow, with the first 100 pages just introducing the characters and their past experiences and relationships as well as their emotional and most personal thoughts. After the first 100 pages small conflicts start to develop thought the rest of the book, but there is never really a main central conflict that drives the book forward (this is also something I have never read before).
Overall, Easter Island is a good book to save for a rainy day when you have a lot of free time on your plate. It is not a story driven by conflict. It is a story driven by experiences that may lead to conflict. Jennifer Vanderbes has proved herself to be a talented and gifted writer, but she needs to figure out who her audience really is.
I have to admit, i was very much anticipating this book for the summer but just finished it last week and have to say it was over all a HUGE disappointment. The ending (while I won't give it away here) is completely unbelievable and leaves one of the main characters fully unresolved. I much more cared for the other thread of the story involving Elsa and Alice. I feel cheated b/c I waded through pages of background of Greer for no reason, nothing to advance the plot with. The romance between Alice and another character is written almost comically. It feels cold, and oddly un-sensual, making me wonder did the author include this at the last minute? Sigh. I was really hoping for more, esp. since I heard so much about it. It starts off promisingly, but i wouldn't recommend this to anyone living outside of Easter Island.
Easter Island is the story of two women--Elsa, a young woman forced into a marriage after the death of her father and Greer, a young scientist who is recovering from the death of her husband and his attack on her scientific work. Both women come to Easter Island hoping the mysteries of this most remote island will help them to find their true selves. Each woman becomes engrossed with island life, while discovering truths about herself. I enjoyed Easter Island. The author does a good job of telling two tales at once, despite the fact that these women are very different and have only the loosest connection--their time on the island--to weave the novel together. The stories were rich and the author did a good job of focusing on the characters instead of simply allowing them "to be" on the island. Her use of a real historical event, the start of WWI, to tie the two stories together was also clever. I was a bit disappointed with the conclusion of the book, but overall I enjoyed this novel and would recommend it to fans of literary fiction.
At first I found myself a bit disconcerted by the leaps from one time period to another. It seemed that perhaps a smoother transition might have been possible. Perhaps it could have been. But as I read more deeply into the pages I found myself wondering about the characters in the other time. I was anxious for the transitions that would allow me to see how each of the characters fared. Elsa and her sister Alice drew me in, and left me feeling grateful to live in a time when a woman could make her own choices more easily. A time when a woman could provide a living for herself and her family. They had to depend on a man, a relative stranger, for their means to survive. Decades later things had changed...but perhaps not as much as it would seem. Women could indeed work for a living, provide for themselves and seek more and higher education. Women were able to aspire to the same heights as any man, but they were still vulnerable in many ways. Greer's education had become her obsession, her life. On her journey she met a man who seemed to be the very one to teach her, encourage her and help her in her quest to become the best in her field of botany. When she lost him to death, the second time she had lost him, it seems, she determined to carry on and follow her own dream. This dream took her to Easter Island. The Island of mysteries, as well as great beauty. There the lives of Elsa and Greer not only intersect, but come together in unimaginable ways. This story has it all. There is science, mystery, passion and more. I found it to be a fantastic read, one that I will recommend many times.
Very satisfying read. Extremely well constructed story with parallel storylines fitting together nicely. Clearly very well researched. I'm not typically a reader of "women's books" or "chick lit" (I positively HATE that term...), and this was definitely a cut well above that genre.
The island history and science of tracking plant migrations was more interesting to me than the routine soap-opera plot.
A really good read. There are 3 stories set at 3 different times. I learned a lot about the characters as weel as the history of Easter Island, the German Navy and pollen. Each story was interesting in and of itself, but the tying together at the end made it great.
I read many great reviews about this novel and feel that the story fell quite short of the masterpiece it was stated to be. Although Ms. Vanderbees obviously was very thorough in her research, as related to botany and Easter Island; I felt the focus on the technicality of botany was tedious and was taken too far; afterall, this was a novel, not a text for a grad school course in botany. I anticipated the development of the story lines for Greer and Elsa, and felt cheated in the end due to the lack of resolution. Perhaps that was Ms. Vanderbees point; just as there is no answer to the mystery of Easter Island, there is no answer to the outcome of Elsa and Greer's paths. It is a novel that leaves you making many assumptions in the end. A well-researched novel and great characters, but the plot falls a bit flat 3/4 of the way through; therefore making the characters and their story boring and inplausable in the end.
This novel provoked the most interesting discussion so far this year for our club. Highly recommended.
To me, Easter Island was a page-turner. Vanderbes's research, both for botannical accuracy and Easter Island's history, was impeccable. The characters were beautifully drawn, and the plot was interwoven masterfully, switching between the two protagonists with ease. I identified with both Elsa and Greer, not only in their searches for meaningful relationships, but also in their devotion to intellectual pursuits. They will live in memory as my friends.
This was a beautifully written story. I had no trouble going back and forth between the two stories of the past and present, though they had similar threads running through their individual stories, each was fully developed and unmistakeably of it's own time. The historical details were interesting and poignant, but what I truly enjoyed was the main theme of the entire book which seemed to me to be about choices. Specifically, how our lives mold our decisions, and when we make the wrong decision...how that affects our life. These women, Elsa and Greer, both made unfortunate choices in their love interests, but they learned to live with and accept their mistakes and go on to lead good lives. It was a wonderful story.
This book was suspenseful, intelligent and heartfelt. I was completely drawn in to the relationship between Elsa and her younger sister Alice, who travel to Easter Island in 1912 with Elsa's new husband, Professor Beazley. Greer's story provided a very interesting contemporary parallel, and the challenges she faced as a scientist with her older, academic husband illuminated the ways in which women had made (and not made) progress towards equality by the 1970s. The writing throughout was beautiful (I particularly liked the descriptions of the island). A must read.
ho-hum..was highly recommended but seems very tedious and little passion ultimately. the writing seems forced and even steely at times. intersting setting for a novel, bbut the characters were ultimately bound as if corseted in their minds AND their waists. skip all the hype and go for ZZ packer's dazzling debut instead for more meat.