My new novel, The Gypsy Moth Summer, is set in 1992 on the fictional island of Avalon, home to Grudder Aviation factory, the toast of the Navy. Avalon is inspired by the islet off Long Island where I grew up, which, like Avalon, is “an island with only one exit.” Island novels have always fascinated me. Much like a small-town atmosphere, where everyone knows each other’s business, the confined island setting pushes characters together (in love, in war) for better or for worse, accentuating rumors of affairs and betrayals, long-time feuds, and coast-to-coast gossip. Here are some of my favorite titles that explore how a secluded setting can depict both an idyllic escape from the outside world and also an isolation that can feel, at times, tense and claustrophobic.
Child of My Heart by Alice McDermott
Alice McDermott, best known for her National Book Award-winning novel Charming Billy, is a masterful storyteller of the complex class struggle Americans, often first-generation Irish-Americans, experience living in or around New York City. Child of my Heart, told by a woman looking back on the summer she was 15 and living on the eastern tip of Long Island, is an evocative depiction of the sun-drenched island life of East Hampton, as well as the exhilarating, and often overwhelming revelations a girl on the brink of womanhood experiences. Readers will taste the sea-salty air and feel the summer sun when immersed in this story of a young woman’s forbidden love for a charming and maniacal artist.
Location: Long Island
The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy
I was a teenager when I found a copy of The Prince of Tides at a sidewalk sale for a single dollar. I’ve bought countless copies since, gifting to them to avid readers who love an engrossing dramatic story. A haunting novel about trauma that shatters an entire generation, and the redemptive power of love — both familial and romantic — Conroy’s best-selling novel (also made into a film starring Barbara Streisand and Nick Nolte) is set in New York City and South Carolina but the novel’s pivotal scene takes place on Melrose Island, remote and full of wild natural beauty, known as a shrimping town and a symbol of the Old South.
Location: South Carolina
Euphoria by Lily King
I have yet to meet a reader who has not wept at the end of Lily King’s breathtaking novel, Euphoria. Inspired by the life of the ground-breaking anthropologist Margaret Mead, this island novel, set in 1930s Papua New Guinea, is the best kind of love story — passionate, conflicted, and intimate. Each of the scientists in this transfixing love triangle has everything to lose and readers will be fascinated by the complex character relationships.
Location: New Guinea
Diamond Head by Cecily Wong
Cecily Wong’s debut novel will have you longing to escape to the island of Oahu with its lush atmospheric description of the food, flora, and balmy air of Hawaii. This panoramic novel follows four generations in a wealthy shipping family from The Boxer Rebellion in China to Pearl Harbor to 1960s Oahu. An absorbing tale of forbidden love, class conflict, and generational misunderstandings, this island novel is an unforgettable read.
The Movement of Stars by Amy Brill
Hannah Gardner Price, the remarkable heroine of Amy Brill’s The Movement of Stars, is a female astronomer living in 1845 Nantucket — an island that feels to Hannah, at times, like a prison with its Quaker rules that dictate a woman’s restricted life, but which has also fueled her ambition as an astronomer. Based on Maria Mitchell, the first professional American female astronomer, readers will root for Hannah with every page. This island novel offers something for every reader — a tender love story, a fascinating historical lesson, and an inspiring tale of a brilliant woman who refuses to give up her dream.
Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique
The winner of the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, Land of Love and Drowning is a genre-bending island novel that melds the history of the Virgin Islands with a mythic tale of love and magic following three generations of the Bradshaw family from the early 1900s to the 1970s. Yanique’s debut mesmerizes with exquisite prose and a rhythmic voice that will transport readers to an island of passionate love affairs, tragic deaths, complex alliances and betrayals, and otherworldly curses and cures.
Location: Virgin Islands
Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn
It was no surprise when Nicole Dennis-Benn’s impressive debut recently won the 29th Annual Lambda Literary Award in the category of Lesbian Fiction. Here Comes the Sun was one of the most critically acclaimed novels of 2016 and for good reason — this island novel, set in Jamaica, reveals the complex world of an island known mostly for its commercialized “paradise.” With a cast of extraordinary Jamaican women, each fighting for independence in her own unique way, Here Comes the Sun is a novel that entertains and inspires.
Enchanted Islands by Allison Amend
Set on the volcanic Galàpagos islands, Allison Amend’s enchanting third novel is a necessary addition to every “must read” list. A story that is, at once, about female friendship, political alliances, and secrets so urgent life, death and national security is at stake, this island novel with its twisting tale of espionage pre-World War II will captivate readers.
Have you read any of these books? Tell us in the comments!