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by Allison Amend

Pub Date: May 24th, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-385-53906-7
Publisher: Nan A. Talese

Secrets, lies, and spies on a faraway island.

The real-life Frances and Ainslie Conway spent years before, during, and after World War II on the Galápagos Islands, recording their unusual adventure in two memoirs that have inspired Amend’s (A Nearly Perfect Copy, 2013, etc.) pleasurable new novel. Her fictional Frances grows up in a Jewish immigrant family in turn-of-the-century Duluth, with a best friend, Rosalie, who is being sexually exploited and parents too poor even to let her finish high school. The two girls run away when they are 15, but their paths soon diverge: Rosalie eventually marries a rich man and becomes a socialite; Frances, after putting herself through college, ends up as a secretary in San Francisco, working for Navy Intelligence. One day, her boss presents her with “a strange proposition.” It seems that one Ainslie Conway, a military man who “does some shadow work” for the Navy, is being assigned to “a rather remote post, and part of his cover,” he tells Frances, “requires that he arrive with a wife.” No explanation is provided for this requirement, but soon Frances, at 50, is married to the handsome, charming Ainslie, 11 years her junior. Although he sometimes stays out all night, although Frances notices lingering looks between him and other men, and although Ainslie takes three months to consummate their union, she fails to guess that he's gay until, on the island, she catches him kissing a man. “You’ll wonder how I could have been so blind,” she admits. But she realizes, too, that her love for him is “deeper than mere facts.” On the island, the Conways are supposed to look out for German spies, but Amend portrays espionage as less challenging than the arduous struggles of daily life.

Despite some improbable plot twists, appealing characters and vivid local color make for an entertaining read.