Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Great Writing/Not Much Story: Osprey Island by Thisbe Nissen

It is generally accepted that novels are either plot driven or character driven – the best novels merge the two. By those standards I am being generous in giving Thisbe Nissen's Osprey Island three stars instead of two but it is beautifully written. The problem is, as the saying goes, there is no “there” there. Ms Nissen writes beautifully, she has an eye for detail and her passages about the osprey – plus the inclusion of selections from Roger Tory Peterson's books – are just great. However, that's where the positive side of this book ends.

I was attracted to the story by the description of an island full of secrets, the rescuing of a small boy from a cruel father, and the possibility of romance. After enduring ±300 pages, the secrets are boring, the child's fate is ambiguous, and the romance is pitiful. There is not much in the way of plot here which is sad because the book was rich with potential for it, and the characters were the most dislikable bunch of people you could ask for. 

Bud, a skinflint, corner-cutting drip, and his lazy hypochondriac wife Nancy run an inn on the beautiful Osprey Island. Every summer they hire as maids a bunch of young women from Ireland – only two of whom we meet in the story, a nymphomaniac and a shy girl who waits until her shift is over before reporting an incident of child abuse. They also hire some college boys as waiters whose main job it is to drive the Irish girls places for various reasons. Also working for Bud and Nancy are Lorna and Lance, a couple of drunks who shamefully neglect and abuse their small son Squee.  Bud and Nancy are also the parents of Suzy, a teacher who returns to the inn for the summer with her little daughter Mia in tow. Suzy, who is not married, admits she thought about an abortion when she discovered she was pregnant but decided to have Mia, and spends the rest of the story dumping Mia on the Irish girls so she can go off and screw Roddy, the inn's handyman.

For awhile I had hopes for Roddy – I really wanted to like him but he turned out to be so passive and lacking any kind of backbone that I also lost interest in him. There are also a lot of forgettable secondary characters.

It's too bad because Ms Nissen writes beautifully with some genuinely memorable prose – just no memorable characters or story. I loved the concept, I loved the setting and I very much loved the osprey but, please, Ms Nissen, next time give us some story and at least one or two likeable characters.

Maybe I should take that back – I did very much like Margery and Lorraine, but they are a couple of chickens so, well, draw your own conclusions. Also, for a book published by Knopf, it sure could use an editor! Lots of typos -- "he spun out of control like a car without breaks." Good grief.

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