Easter Island: A Novel by Jennifer Vanderbes (New York: The Dial Press, 2003. 320 pp)
Jennifer Vanderbes graduated from Yale University with a B.A. in English Literature and received her M.F.A in Creative Writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She has obtained both the Guggenheim and Cullman Fellowship and has taught at both the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Columbia University. Easter Island, her first novel, obtained the honor of “best book of 2003” by the Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor. Her most recent novel, Strangers at the Feast was published in August 2010.
The Locals Call It Rapa Nui
A solitary land mass with its closest neighbor over 1,200 miles away, Easter Island is famously known for its moai statues – monolithic figures erected throughout the island. Along with the rongorongo – a series of undeciphered written tablets found in the caves of Easter Island – the moai remain in imaginations worldwide for the mysterious nature behind their creation. Perhaps obviously but nevertheless in need of stating, this famed island provides a backdrop for Jennifer Vanderbes novel of the same name.
Easter Island navigates parallel stories told in different eras. In one narrative, Elsa Beazely sails to this island with her sister, Alice, and her husband, Edward, an anthropologist. Elsa’s relationship with Edward is one defined more by convenience since he provides ample security and allows Elsa to care for her sister who suffers from a mental condition. While on Easter Island, Edward studies the moai attempting to answer the curious question of how they were formed, transported, and erected around the 18-mile-wide island. During this time, Elsa attempts to translate the rongorongo with the help of the island’s native inhabitants.
In the parallel storyline, Dr. Greer Farraday travels to Easter Island officially to study island botany but mostly to escape her crumbling life stateside. Still mourning the loss of her husband, Greer dives into her work attempting to understand how such a lonely island accumulated its plants and how its plant life transformed over the centuries.
With both narratives, the central theme surrounds the desire to explore, learn, and simultaneously escape the civilized world. Both Elsa and Greer regret the poor outcomes of their lives.
“I’ve thought the world would still be entirely unmapped were it not for the impetus of a broken heart” (8).
Mysterious Island, Mysterious Narrative
However, I found Easter Island insufficient on the whole. Although the narratives build toward each other as the story moves, I found myself indifferent to Elsa’s part. Whenever a Greer chapter would end, I frustratingly read a chapter about Elsa awaiting further unveilings in Greer’s storyline. Moreover, I found the conclusions of both stories to be incomplete. I needed to make assumptions about the storyline because the conclusions were not sharply stated. Sometimes when a book includes two separate stories, I hope for the two stories to tie nicely at the end.
Additionally, Vanderbes writes some extremely technical passages on the subject of botany. While a part of me finds the subject intriguing, its addition in a novel is somewhat odd.
On the whole, Easter Island is a moderately entertaining novel. Like its namesake, the novel remains a mystery. The careful descriptions of the island kept me entertained as I struggled through the dual narratives and technical botanist language. I recommend this novel for those interested in Easter Island.