Allison Amend’s third novel, “Enchanted Islands,” like her first, “Stations West,“ is historical fiction. But the new story takes place in early 20th century America and on the Galapagos Islands shortly before World War II, not in the American Old West. Amend says “Enchanted Islands” is “based very loosely on two memoirs of the real-life Frances Conway.” Amend writes this story as if it’s Conway’s third memoir, with two major storylines, each about secrets: her life-long friendship with Rosalie Mendler, and, later, her relationship with Ainslie Conway, whom Fanny marries as a cover story for spying in the Galapagos.
“Enchanted Islands” begins with the elderly protagonist looking back at her life. It’s been 20 years since World War II ended, and Fanny and Rosalie are 82 and living in a nursing home. Rosalie is about to be honored by Hadassah of Northern California for her work during the war effort: throwing fundraising parties for Israel. Fanny is skeptical. Throwing parties is war work? Jealous, she writes:
“Rosalie was in the spotlight while I sat in the wings, but this in particular galls me. I am the one who truly served my country during the war. I am the one who stayed in a marriage for the sake of my country, who came close to losing my life for it. And I can tell no one.”
But “official secrecy act be damned” – Fanny, this plain, childless, Minnesotan daughter of immigrant parents, writes that third memoir, “so that something I’ve done will live on, and I can move on from this world.”
Friendships, after three-quarters of a century, can be strained and tested, and so is Fanny and Rosalie’s. But despite her revealing a national secret, Fanny remains silent about Rosalie’s biggest secrets: “Secrets shared by women are sacred. They transcend the duties of country or marriage.”
The first part of the story is a page-turner about two friends, who along with their families, are opposites. Fanny’s parents are poor and struggling.
Rosalie’s family tries to appear wealthy; they dress well and live in a house they can’t afford. Something of a beauty, Rosalie is wild and whimsical, but abused; Fanny is cerebral and, by Rosalie’s standards, timid. Fanny is determined and stubborn, but stubbornness can be an asset. Fanny loves school and is devastated when her parents pull her out immediately before high school. The girls manage to persuade Fanny’s parents to let her attend secretarial school, which she does, but she also sneaks into high school classes.
When the girls are 15, they run away to Chicago. After a while, Rosalie’s betrayal of their friendship over a guy causes a split, and the friends don’t see each other for decades. They live in various parts of the country, Fanny working mostly as a secretary, and Rosalie ostensibly acting, but mostly pursuing men and money. Years later, they meet once more in San Francisco, where they vow never to lose each other again.
It’s around that time that Fanny, now in her 50s, finds herself working as a secretary for the Twelfth District Office of Naval Intelligence, which propels her into intelligence gathering. Fanny’s boss persuades her to marry Ainslie Conway, a “confirmed bachelor,” as part of their cover as spies observing the German movements around Galapagos. They keep track of the German navy and their counterpart German spies on the island. Fanny is truly patriotic. She believes her “actions contribute to the evolution of civilization,” even though they might be minuscule in the universal scheme.
Most writers loathe being labeled as “historical novelists,” “Jewish writers,” or that literary death kiss: “a writer’s writer.” So does Amend. She makes the story of a friendship as exciting and suspenseful as the espionage story. After three novels, it should be no secret that she’s damn fine storyteller.
By Allison Amend
Nan A. Talese, Doubleday, 320 pages