Title: Island Girl by Lynda Simmons
Paperback: 448 pages. Publisher: Berkley Trade; Original edition (December 7, 2010)
Genre: contemporary women's fiction
Source: review copy from author
Objective rating: 4.5 out of 5
Summary: Set on an island off the city of Toronto, the novel is about hair stylist Ruby Donaldson, who at age 55 discovers she has Alzheimer's and makes plans for herself and her two daughters, Liz and Grace, for after she is unable to function normally. She is surrounded by friends on the island and an ex-lover who are willing to help her, though at first she refuses their advice and offers of help.
Ruby's plans are a surprise and her own plans for herself are somewhat unorthodox. She maneuvers to have her estranged daughter Liz return from Toronto to Ward Island to take care of Grace. The girls have different plans or hopes for their future.
Comments: Ruby is gutsy, overprotective of her daughters, and fiercely independent. We develop a soft spot for her as time goes on, and we get to know her daughters in their own words, as they tell their stories in the novel. I got very involved with these three personalities, richly drawn by the author. A fourth female is involved in this story, a 12-year-old girl who helps the childlike Grace to advance to more independence. The plot and characterization and the island setting make this a very worthwhile read.
Author: Lynda Simmons is a Canadian author whose first novel was Getting Rid of Rosie. She describes herself as a writer by day and a college instructor by night, who grew up in Toronto reading Greek mythology. She and her husband live in a small city outside of Toronto.
Tour: This book tour was sponsored by TLC Book Tours. Click on the link to see other stops on the tour, June 6-10.
Lynda: My mother-in-law was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s fifteen years ago. A feisty little thing not five feet tall, she was the kind of woman who built backyard hockey rinks, rescued baby squirrels and made room in her home for forgotten kids. I think she would have gone on taking in those kids forever, but Alzheimer’s changed everything, slowly but steadily stealing her memories, her personality, eventually even her ability to communicate.
She’s been in care for a number of years now, and it was in the lounge of the long term facility that we met other families dealing with this devastating illness. Like strangers everywhere, we discussed the weather, the staff, and the next activity on the calendar. And sometimes, when we thought we’d found a kindred soul, we spoke in whispered tones about our own fears of this devastating illness, and our refusal to give in to the Long Goodbye. To tell the truth, it was the difference in the way the generations approached Alzheimer’s that fascinated me.
My mother-in-law’s generation, the ones who lived through the Great Depression and World War II, tend to be fatalistic about whatever life throws at them. They take a suck-it-up-and-soldier-on attitude, trusting their doctors, their government and their family to do what’s right for them. The people of my generation, on the other hand, don’t blindly trust anyone. We’re children of the revolution, after all. We want information and alternatives. And we are not at all ready to accept the Long Goodbye as our fate.
So we read, we surf the net, we drink the pomegranate juice and we do crossword puzzles. And even as we watch our loved ones disappear and pray for a cure before Big Al comes looking for us, we are certain of one thing – we want a choice in our own future.
“He never wanted this,” one woman told me, watching her husband shuffle back and forth between the nursing station and the lounge. “He wanted out long ago, but I couldn’t very well throw him in front of a subway train, could I?”
No, she couldn’t. So now this man, proud and handsome judging by the pictures the staff had put in the cubby outside his room, was reduced to diapers and mushy food and a life that would likely have ended a while ago if Big Al had been left alone with him for a few days. But that’s not going to happen so he goes on day after day, shuffling back and forth in front of that lounge.
I couldn’t help it. I had to explore this issue. Had to take a character who is strong and independent and accustomed to being in control, and thrust her headlong into a situation that takes all of that strength and control away. A character who has not made good choices in her life, a woman who has alienated lovers and friends and even one of her children, and now finds herself needing forgiveness and compassion – something she was never good at herself – from the very people she pushed away.
My research involved books and documentaries, doctors and nurses, caregivers and social workers, and most importantly, the patients themselves. And when I finally sat down to write, I started with two questions: Does Alzheimer’s grant a person instant forgiveness, a moral get-out-of-jail free card? And should you have the right to decide your own fate?
If I were writing non-fiction, I would take a stand on these questions and present facts and statistics to back up my point of view, expecting you to be swayed by my arguments when you closed the book. But Island Girl is fiction, and the purpose of fiction is not to persuade or win an argument. The purpose of fiction is to explore human nature, to present you with two people who are arguing and both are right. It’s up to you to decide who won!
You can find out more about Lynda Simmons at http://lyndasimmons.com/