I just closed my copy of Lara Tupper’s second novel “Off Island.” I’m thinking about the characters I was saying goodbye to ... Gaugin and Mete, and all of his other women; Pete and Molly and Karla; Molly and Pete and Flip. Triangles. Or, in Gaugin’s case, the infinity symbol ...
I was thinking about how well this book examines the complexities of human relationships, particularly when love comes to town; the expectations we have for ourselves and for those we love. Complex, rich in emotion and imagery is Tupper’s writing about this very human experience ... but with an artistic twist. She brings Gaugin to Monhegan Island for his final years, beginning in 1903; and uses her hometown, Boothbay Harbor, as home base for Pete, Molly and their son Emmett, but in the story it is Bay Harbor.
The parallels between Gaugin’s wife Mete, left in Paris as he travels around the globe for his art; and Molly in Bay Harbor whose husband breathes for his art, focused on capturing the light in work. The women are left to deal with the realities of life – raising the children, maintaining the home base ... Basically, but what about what they dreamed about for themselves? What happens to the soul of a person who lays down their own dreams to nurture and further the dreams of another, even if it is someone they love?
Gaugin’s insatiable appetites for his art, women (age irrelevant), and absinthe are legendary, so there was a lot to work with here. And this is a man who told his wife about his various lovers in his letters. In the novel, Gaugin never made it to the South Seas, he went to Monhegan Island. Meanwhile, back in Paris, Mete is raising their four children alone. She waits for Paul to send her paintings. Mete sells them for food, clothing and shelter.
For Pete, a hometown Bay Harbor guy whose family used to own quite a bit of property on Monhegan Island, there was just one other woman. The baton twirling, flirty one from Bay Harbor High School – Karla. In addition to Karla, Pete has his weed and beers, and Monhegan, and the book of symbolism Molly gave him that he knows by heart.
Tupper takes us into the intimacies of each character’s life and psyche. She devotes chapters to them. We get a glimpse into those lives – their youth, their dreams, relationships, love. sex, life and what it feels like to lose parts of ourselves, whether we give them up or they just slip away … how colors change our world ... what it’s like to be human. Colors are emotions and emotion, colors. And that’s all about perception, right?
Pete retreats to the basement of his home with Molly on Townsend Gut, painting the same island scenes, experimenting with variations of the same colors over and over again – when he’s not at Ocean Point with Karla. Midnight blue. Tahiti, scantily clad women, sun, sand, Pete’s daydreams. Molly had given Pete a book about the art of Gaugin when they were younger. Pete thinks Tahiti smells of nutmeg. How he can hear the Tahitian Sea.
Molly and Mette hear things, too– deafening silence, the voices of their children needing things wanting things … and they hear their souls and feel their hearts.
And, there’s Paul Gaugin. The novel starts with him. You can smell the sand, salt and sweat. You can see him painting on the cliffs there on Monhegan in 1903. Drinking his absinthe … Monhegan has been an artist’s paradise for well over a century, why not for Gaugin too? Every artist chases the light … and it is exceedingly beautiful on the island. Gaugin hears his wife’s voice. Misses her even. And his children. But, he cannot stay in one place. He needs to paint. He needs variety, new places to interpret and breathe in. He must paint.
The twist in this story, and I can’t say too, too much for fear of giving it away … is artfully alluded to throughout the read. And a clever twist it is, too.
Readers familiar with our gorgeous part of the world will recognize it in Tupper’s book, not too surprising considering Boothbay Harbor is her hometown! There’s the downtown – The Thistle, Grover’s, the YMCA where Molly takes Emmett swimming; there are street references; Ocean Point, the Wilson Memorial Chapel where Pete and Molly were married …
What do I like about “Off Island?” Let’s start with how it affected all five senses and how it sparked memories of heart and mind. It’s a study of love relationships: How fulfilling and how devastating they can be, but how central they are to our human experience.
“Off Island.” Read it. Love it.
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