The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

“Scars are just another kind of memory.” ~ The Light Between Oceans
 

It seemed that the book community was hot or cold about The Light Between Oceans There was no grey area. People either really loved this book or hated it. What really convinced me to read it was the film so when my wonderful friend Brisni suggested we buddy read it I was all in. Historical fiction is probably my favorite genre so my expectations for this book were very high. This book is broken down into three parts so I will tackle each part and then a full summary in the end. 


SYNOPSIS:

Australia, 1926. After four harrowing years fighting on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne returns home to take a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, nearly half a day's journey from the coast. To this isolated island, where the supply boat comes once a season and shore leaves are granted every other year at best, Tom brings a young, bold, and loving wife, Isabel. Years later, after two miscarriages and one stillbirth, the grieving Isabel hears a baby's cries on the wind. A boat has washed up onshore carrying a dead man and a living baby. 

Tom, whose records as a lighthouse keeper are meticulous and whose moral principles have withstood a horrific war, wants to report the man and infant immediately. But Isabel has taken the tiny baby to her breast. Against Tom's judgment, they claim her as their own and name her Lucy. When she is two, Tom and Isabel return to the mainland and are reminded that there are other people in the world. Their choice has devastated one of them. 

M. L. Stedman's mesmerizing, beautifully written debut novel seduces us into accommodating Isabel's decision to keep this "gift from God." And we are swept into a story about extraordinarily compelling characters seeking to find their North Star in a world where there is no right answer, where justice for one person is another's tragic loss.


PART I

Part one was a bit slow for me. The prologue gives a glimpse into what specifically happens to the two main characters, Isabel and Tom, that is the basis of the entire story. Tom and Isabel are married and live on Janus Rock. Tom is a lighthouse keeper who I'd describe as an "upstanding citizen." He is a person who operates on morals and principles and takes his position as a lighthouse keeper very seriously. I would describe his wife, Isabel, as very confident, sort of snarky and spoiled. When they first meet she is very forward with Tom. Even when he left Janus Rock after they met, Isabel wrote him a 'thinking of you' letter with just enough hints that let Tom know she was thinking of him. Back to the prologue. One day Isabel was standing on a cliff overlooking Janus Rock when she sees a boat drift ashore. She and Tom take it upon themselves to investigate only to find a deceased man and a baby which Isabel wants to keep as her own after having several miscarriages. This creates a dynamic between the two of them; both morally and personally.

Tom is mentally suffering like many of his comrades after the war. He WANTS to make Isabel happy. It is clear that he loves his wife, but what stands in his way is always doing what's "right" so he is dealing with an internal struggle regarding a baby that does not belong them and constantly wondering if there is a distraught mother somewhere. I am not much of a romance novel reader so for me if there is romance in a story I need it to read authentically. Prior to Tom and Isabel getting married, some of their "flirty" scenes made me cringe. I do understand their longing desire for one another as she is a 20 year old young woman and he is coming home from war having missed the soft touch and attention of a woman, but for some reason I envisioned in my mind a cheesy 80s film where the girl is running across a field of lilies into the man's muscular arms with the music playing in the background. I didn't want to envision this but I did. 

I also think Part I is overly detailed in describing Janus Rock. I loved that in it's description I felt like I was standing on the beach wrapped softly in a sarong with my eyes clothes daydreaming with the summer breeze. It's very atmospheric. Obviously setting the visual for location needs to be established but a chapter and a half is overkill and slows down the story completely.  

  “If a lighthouse looks like it's in a different place, it's not the lighthouse that's moved.” 
― M.L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans

 
photo cred: cici ford

photo cred: cici ford

 

Part II

Honestly this part of the story is where I began to really clinch my teeth and develop a slight dislike for Isabel. My heart and natural empathy for human despair tells me to feel sorry for her. She is a woman who has experienced great loss and wants nothing more than to be a mother; to love and be loved. However, my logical side tells me that this woman is incredibly selfish in her desire to keep a baby that does not belong to her knowing that the mother of this child is desperately seeking her. Tom is plagued with guilt and expresses to Isabel that it is wrong, but Isabel in all of her morally grey glory makes Tom feel incredibly guilty about wanting to do the "right thing."

She rages at Tom when he challenges her decision to keep "Lucy" and uses her miscarriages to persuade Tom to see things her way. Although I like Tom's vulnerability in this part of the story, he seems trapped under the guise of his affection for his wife. It makes me think about defending loved ones behavior even when it's wrong because of feelings of guilt and obligation. In part II "Lucy's" (named by Isabel) biological mother, Hannah, is introduced and her attempt to find her daughter. The man who Tom and Isabel found dead on the boat with the baby was Frank, Hannah's husband and Lucy's biological father. Their backstory is given which I won't spoil you too much on.

PLOT TWIST:

There are secrets between Tom and Isabel and it turns out they know Hannah from past encounters. Isabel wonders if Tom had an affair with Hannah and now the dynamics of their situation have heightened. Not only are they raising a child that does not belong to them, but the child of a woman they both know. 

Part III

And here we have arrived at the "magnum opus", so to speak, of this incredibly annoying story. This is where I have developed a true disdain for these characters. Not only is Tom arrested, but he lies about burying Frank's body in order to protect his wife. To make matters worse Isabel is so distraught about Tom telling the authorities the truth in all of her selfish and psychotic behavior, she let's the police think that Tom actually committed murder to get back at him for "ruining her life" by not being quiet and keeping a child that doesn't belong to her. She ends up having run ins with "Lucy" whose actual name is Grace and her biological mother Hannah. Isabel is the only mother that Lucy has ever known and she struggles to connect with Hannah and let's Hannah know that she is not her "Momma" which tears Hannah apart. Enter Hannah's annoying sister Gwen who thinks it's a good idea to sneak Lucy to see Isabel, as she explains it, for the child's "own good." Isabel in the end finally has to tell the truth which allows Tom to go free and after learning all the details, Hannah, tired and weary, just wants everything to be over so she can go home with her daughter so she doesn't press any charges against Isabel.


I cannot recall ever (not exaggerating) reading a book that enraged me more than this one. Although I found this book to be incredibly atmospheric and rhythmic, I could not stand ANY of these characters. I am not a reader that needs to connect with characters to love it, but these characters were extremely absentminded, selfish, assumptive etc. Tom was not written with an admirable vulnerability that I actually like in most male characters. He was weak and a complete pushover. I, in no way, thought that him hiding that keeping Lucy-Grace was Isabel's idea and lying for her while he was wilting away in a jail cell was a reflection of his "love" for her. In fact, I thought it was completely insane. Isabel was actually quite wretched. She called keeping Lucy-Grace "a miracle". When Hannah said that she would give Lucy-Grace up if she swore that everything Tom said was true and that he would be prosecuted, Isabel quickly said, "I swear". She cared nothing about him. Later could not live with herself. 

I have absolutely know idea how to rate this book. It had such good pacing but it made me angry. I like that this book tackles so many flaws and questions about our human existence; mental illness, insecurity, "right" and "wrong", personal morals and principles. What happens to a person's psyche when they experience loss {death} in succession the way Isabel did? What really happens to a person when they've experienced death in war and them come home to more death? This book completely threw me for a loop.