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Book Review: On the Island by Tracey Garvis Graves

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

I have to admit, I was a little dubious when beginning On the Island by Tracey Garvis Graves.  The premise struck me as a little bit…icky: a 30-year-old teacher and a 16-year-old student end up stranded on a deserted island together, and as the weeks and months pass they slowly fall in love.  It was being marketed as a romance, but if the genders were reversed, there is no way anyone would find this acceptable (although, it’s important to note, nothing happens between Anna and T.J. until after T.J. was of age).  Also, there’s the fact that someone, somewhere, at some time, must have pitched this book as Blue Lagoon meets The Graduate.  I mean, really, how could they resist?

But I had heard a lot of good things about the book.  It’s been a New York Times and USA Today bestseller, and, with several thousand reviews to its credit, has 4+ star ratings on both Amazon and Goodreads.  Neither of these things necessarily mean anything, but I figured I’d give it a try.

I found myself pleasantly surprised.  Graves managed to take an uncomfortable subject—a May/December relationship between a woman and a young man who was, at the beginning of the story, underage—and creating a believable romance with characters I rooted for.

The description, courtesy of Penguin Books:

Anna Emerson is a thirty-year-old English teacher desperately in need of adventure. Worn down by the cold Chicago winters and a relationship that’s going nowhere, she jumps at the chance to spend the summer on a tropical island tutoring sixteen-year-old T.J.

T.J. Callahan has no desire to go anywhere. His cancer is in remission and he wants to get back to his normal life. But his parents are insisting he spend the summer in the Maldives catching up on all the school he missed last year.

Anna and T.J. board a private plane headed to the Callahan’s summer home, and as they fly over the Maldives’ twelve hundred islands, the unthinkable happens. Their plane crashes in shark-infested waters. They make it to shore, but soon discover that they’re stranded on an uninhabited island.

At first, their only thought is survival. But as the days turn to weeks, and then months, the castaways encounter plenty of other obstacles, including violent tropical storms, the many dangers lurking in the sea, and the possibility that T.J.’s cancer could return. As T.J. celebrates yet another birthday on the island, Anna begins to wonder if the biggest challenge of all might be living with a boy who is gradually becoming a man.

The beginning of the book focuses on Anna and T.J.’s initial life on the island, and their struggle to survive.  One of the things I thought Graves did really well is establish friendship and devotion between these two characters well before their relationship turned romantic.  Anna and T.J. become each other’s confidants and support system as they figure out how to live on the island, learning to fish, start fires, build shelters, and kill sharks.

The character of T.J., already quite mature at the beginning of the book, grows and matures in leaps and bounds throughout the book so that, by the time he and Anna begin their relationship, he acts and feels like an adult man.

What struck me as unusual about this book, compared to a lot of other romances I’ve read, is that it really doesn’t seem inevitable that the characters would end up together.  In fact, I would say that the book being marketed as a romance actually does it a disservice.  Anna and T.J. face continuous challenges, including their constant struggle to survive and their fear of other people’s reactions if they ever get back to the real world.

This isn’t perfect book, though.  It’s got some pacing problems; some chapters cover a single day, while other chapters cover months.  Things that I would have rather the author spent more time developing passed by too fast.  The ending also stretched on about three chapters too long.  I also suspect, despite my own acceptance, some readers will continue to find the subject matter troubling.  None of these detracted from my enjoyment of the book, though.

On a side note: after I read the book, I found out that the book had originally been self published.  After the book became successful, one of Penguin’s imprints picked it up for publication.  I find it reassuring that not every book that achieves self-publication success is 50 Shades of Gray.