Yep, I just spent my weekend reading a soft-core novel about a 30-year-old school teacher and a 16-year-old recovering cancer patient who get stranded on a desert island and end up fucking each other and killing a shark. But there's a reason why Tracey Garvis Graves' initially self-published On the Island has gained a huge following, and it goes beyond the outward appearance of a Mitch Albom-style tale of star-crossed pedophilia.
We're introduced to young T.J. Callahan and his tutor Anna Emerson as their seaplane, piloted by a cheeseburger-scarfing lout, crashes en route to the Callahan family vacation house in the Maldives. The lout dies, but Anna and T.J. survive and make their way through treacherous waters to a desert island. Their teacher-student relationship, of course, becomes tricky. But Anna—who took the job to get away from a failing relationship—is moralistic and spurns T.J.'s fawning advances. Or until he's of legal age, at least.
There's nothing brilliant or revolutionary about this novel. But what Garvis Graves has going for her is a flawless recipe for an addictive narrative. Case in point: shark attacks, steamy, forbidden sex and island life. It's like Jimmy Buffett meets R. Kelly on a Shark Week special. Show me one person who isn't turned on by this and I'll show you nine others—male or female—with raging literary boners.
Garvis Graves also employs a simple-but-effective device of alternating between the voices of T.J. and Anna from chapter to chapter. It's not exactly poetry, but it helps the characters come to life. Early insights from T.J., written in the voice of a teenage boy who hasn't yet matured, sound exactly like the musings of a teenage boy who hasn't yet matured. "I liked Anna. A lot. Without her, life on the island would have really sucked." In fact, there's hardly anything worth quoting in this book.
And some of the scenarios Garvis Graves poses, while highly entertaining, require a Scientology adherent’s suspension of disbelief. Attempting to catch a 9-foot man-eater with a chicken fastened to rusty nails on a length of rope is one stretch of implausibility. Reeling in the beast with the aid of a crew of affable, head-butting dolphins is another. But don't worry—you'll be rewarded with the book's first sex scene a few pages later. Apparently, shark-killing really fires up the libido.
Which brings us to the book's underlying conceit: Human beings are animals whose passions and carnal desires are dependent on circumstance. It's a shopworn motif. Still, Garvis Graves keeps it engaging. On the Island is billed as thematically similar to Blue Lagoon and "Lost," but what I found myself thinking about was Lina Wertmüller's 1974 Swept Away. (No, not the scurvy-inducing Guy Ritchie remake starring Madonna’s abs.)
"The way we are now, it's as if we were born here," says Mariangela Melato's bourgeoisie character to her proletariat lover in Swept Away. "The world's built in such a cruel way it could change us again." T.J., in his own artless way, feels the same pangs: "I worried about the next guy. ... The one who had a college degree, liked wine, and didn't mind wearing a tie. I worried that someday, maybe soon, it would matter to her that I wasn't interested in any of those things."
Clearly, On the Island isn't half as heady as Swept Away, with none of its political overtones. But the exploration of two human beings in isolation together—and the question of what will happen once the pair is rescued—are notes in the same chord. And if there's anything daring about this book, it's how Garvis Graves argues for the possibility of a cross-generational relationship that's just as much about true love as it is about lust.
You might hate me for this review, starting with the eyesore cover that looks like a page from the women's section of a Tommy Bahama catalogue. But once you pick up On the Island, believe me, you'll be hooked and reeling like a hungry shark.