Mildred Nelson – The Island (1973)

Review by Justin Tate

A bizarre, 1970’s marriage melodrama set on a tropical island off the coast of Florida. Delivers a kaleidoscope of emotions, from funny to WTF to sexy to super-serious. In the end I’m left reeling, completely unsure how to react.

The set-up is fairly ordinary. After a brief romance, Isabel finds herself married to a hunky botanist who promptly ships them off to an island where he’s employed to conduct plant experiments. The botanist is a typical man, however, who thinks his wife should tend to the kitchen and not pester him unless it’s time for sex. Naturally she’s not happy with this arrangement. “You’ve never shown that you care for me with anything like the devotion you show your plants!” Isabel finally snaps.

And yet, being a typical man, he just doesn’t get it. She goes on a cleaning strike and withdraws bedroom time to get his attention, but it’s no use. Finally she comes up with the perfect solution — she’ll hook up with the young boatman and have two husbands, one for social entertainment and one to come home to. “Why couldn’t she have two husbands?” she ponders to herself after hatching this brilliant idea. And just like that, the problem is solved!

Not quite.

At times the novel feels scandalously modern by 1973 standards. Isabel has such liberal thoughts as “Marriage doesn’t mean anything any more. Everyone knows that a marriage contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. Times have changed.” There’s also a fair number of sex scenes. None are vividly described, but they do occur in exotic locations—such as out in the open, on the jungle floor.

Our leading lady may play the role of housewife, but she’s very much sexually awakened. In the most peculiar passages, she creeps across the jungle on her haunches beneath a full moon. To what purpose is never explained, but it reads like a symbolic depiction of her animalistic urges.

The plot can’t quite settle on a tone, but zany is the best word I would use. All that changes during the dramatic climax, however, when it’s revealed that the entire book has a deadly serious message to convey. You laugh at the goofiness of it all, then feel miserable for not taking it all more seriously. It’s an unexpected bait-and-switch that gives meaning to what might otherwise have been a story about domestic trifles.

Overall, an enjoyable romp that’s rich in setting, beautiful characters, implied steamy sex, liberal ideology, a touch of macabre, and—miraculously—thought provocation. Nelson’s free-flowing third person omniscient narration is unique and carefully maneuvered. Her male characters, even when they are meant to be overtly villainous, come across real and with a sense of empathy. Particularly during the final pages when the dense botanist has a Darwin-inspired emotional purge. I’ve read a good amount of 1970’s romance, but this book showcases relationship dilemmas during that era better than any other I’ve yet to come across.

A higher than usual recommendation, if you can stumble across across a cheap copy.

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