Islands isn’t really about the four couples that make up “The Scrubs,” all successful men and women in their early 40s or so who live and work in Charleston.
Nor is it about the collection of houses they rotate through, from the Sullivan Island beach house to Sweetgrass at the inland marsh, to Booter’s Dockside Shack on John’s Island, which eventually becomes a type of compound for the remaining men and women as they enter their 60s and 70s.
This book is about the feel of Charleston, the weather, the landscape, the sense of place that is the Low Country.
And Siddons lulls you into an appreciation of it.
I grew up in humidity. I’ve been in my share of swamps from Florida to DC, and I never really longed for them or appreciated them. And only now have I come to do slightly more than tolerate Florida’s humid months.
But Siddons will have you longing to smell pluff mud and hear bull gators croak and feel salt spray stinging your face in a winter storm pounding the beach.
She even admits at the end of the book that to her, “Charleston and the Low Country are a state of heart as well as of fact.” And she has done her best to evoke all of that.
The main character of Islands is Anny Butler who the flap copy says is “a caretaker, a nurturer,” which I think is what we now call a “caregiver.” She’s the oldest daughter of an alcoholic mother so she pretty much raised her siblings. And is head of an agency helping needy children when the book opens.
But I didn’t see Anny’s behavior or actions to be specific to eldest daughters or caregiving.
Once she meets her husband, a doctor fifteen years her senior when she’s in her mid-thirties, she is adopted into his group of mostly childhood friends. All the men work in healthcare, hence the name “The Scrubs.”
The group’s main nurturer caregiver type is Anny’s husband’s best childhood friend Camilla, so Anny doesn’t have that role in the group. And it might be a type of career choice, but it didn’t seem as relevant to the character or book as the flap copy seemed to imply.
The story was a bit slow for me, though eventually the pacing picked up. I generally am okay with slower pacing in a story, but it felt like there was a lot of setup happening.
The lively character, Gaynelle, introduced at the midpoint was probably my favorite of them all. That’s about the point when things got more interesting for me. Or perhaps I’d finally fallen under Siddon’s evocative spell.
Still, after the halfway point, I did look forward to just a few more pages over breakfast, lunch, before bed, before work.
Siddons, who passed away just last year, has a wealth of books to her name and most of them look to be in the same area, just going by titles. No surprise, but she lived in Charleston (though she is originally from Atlanta).
Here are a few places to visit to soak up a little more ambiance and setting for her work.
- Downtown Charleston – “where the Cooper and Ashley Rivers come together to form the Atlantic Ocean.” All of The Scrubs have their “main” houses in downtown Charleston and work in town, too. Growing up, Anny was the least well-off of all of them, not one of the more respected rich families in town and this, along with the age difference, often makes her feel like an outsider.
- Johns Island – Fourth largest island on the East Coast, this is where The Scrubs spend the second half of the book, along the creeks and marshlands of the area.
- Sullivan’s Island – With a year-round population of only 2,000, this area was hit hard by Hurricane Hugo, an event that is depicted in Islands. Anny first meets The Scrubs at their shared house at this coveted location and is unexpectedly blessed with an adopted family and ancestral home, all in one.
If you’ve ever been to Charleston (which I have) or been in the South (which I am), you’ll recognize the people and locations that Siddons writes about.
I have vague memories of pouring through my mother’s Southern Living magazines which always had something somewhere about Charleston, even if it was just one of the little travel ads in the middle of the publication.
While I do like books with lots of characters, it took me a little while to actually see or get a good sense of some of the members of The Scrubs. And to see Anny, even.
It is often hardest for the main character narrating in first person “I” to give a description of herself. And no self-respecting author ever has the main character look in a mirror and tell the reader what she sees. So, I’m used to having general blurry images of narrators in books.
But Anny did seem to do a lot of watching and reporting and describing things in vague generalities. If it wasn’t nature or houses, it was less clear.
Still, if you’re up for a lazy languid read, check out Islands. If you can read it in a beach house, on a marshland, or in a posh Charleston coffee shop, even better.
But be careful if you hear that bull gator bellow.
Isle of Palms by Kathie Allen from Pixabay / filtered from original