Celebitchy Book Club: ‘The Light Between Oceans’ by M.L. Stedman

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I can’t believe I actually chose The Light Between Oceans as our Celebitchy Book Club pick this week. It was on the top of a lot book club picks and I thought it sounded sort of interesting and I had just heard that it was going to be adapted into a movie, and Michael Fassbender might play the lead. NEVER AGAIN. Here’s the thing, though – when trying to describe the plot and why the book is awful, I actually made it sound sort of interesting. This is how I explained it to my mom:

It’s about a man, Tom, who comes back from World War I kind of shell-shocked and he just wants to be alone, so he takes a job at a lighthouse in literally the middle of the ocean off of Australia. He meets a pretty girl named Isabel and they end up getting married and she goes to the lighthouse with him where they live happily. Except that she can’t carry a pregnancy to term. She just keeps having miscarriages and it’s awful and she’s in a really bad place and she refuses to get help. And then a baby and a dead man wash ashore on the island. And then everything sucks.

You see, the premise is decent enough. But the execution of the story beyond that point was just… ugh. I guess I felt sympathy for Tom because he always wanted to do the right thing and I guess his “biggest crime” was loving his wife. But I didn’t really have sympathy for him to any extent because Isabel was CRAZY and he should have gotten her help rather than helping her crazy ass. She got on my nerves the way she refused to even consider doing the right thing and she was so pissed off at Tom for taking all the blame. Ugh. I’m so sorry that I chose this book! The only good part about it was that it was very easy to hate-read. The characters are immaturely drawn, the dialogue is painful, the series of resolutions are pitiful and the ending was a joke. Oh, and I was all geared up for a honeymoon sex scene and there was nothing. No sex. At all. I really hope Fassbender isn’t playing Tom. He wouldn’t be able to do the accent anyway.

Bedhead’s take: Kaiser is a nicer person than I am when it comes to literary characters. I felt absolutely no sympathy for either Isabel or Tom. I felt horrible for the baby, whose destiny was altered by a selfish woman and a simpering man, and of course I felt for the mother of the child. Maybe I shouldn’t judge Isabel so harshly because I’ve never had a miscarriage and don’t know that particular type of grief. Likewise for Tom’s experience as a shattered veteran. Still … you just don’t keep someone else’s baby without at least looking for the mother. Everyone makes bad decisions in life, but this selfish decision altered many people’s lives. I know that one of the points of the book is that the line between right and wrong is often blurred, but the baby is a human being. She’s not a possession or a pet.

Despite my dislike of the characters and their behavior, I did enjoy the prose of M.L. Stedman. She did a marvelous job of painting the surroundings of the island and its changing seasons. The symbolism of the book was wonderful too, especially if you consider that Lucy means “light.” Such gorgeous prose was weighed down by awful, overwrought dialogue and selfish main characters that I just couldn’t warm towards.

Celebitchy’s take: I agree with both Bedhead and Kaiser although I may have liked the book more than they did. I’ve also met several people who read this book and really enjoyed it. The book started off promisingly, if slow, with descriptions of the remote Australian island and the lighthouse where Tom worked after the war. Tom’s backstory was interesting, if a bit vague, and we learned that his childhood had parallels to the situation he found himself stuck in. Tom was broken by the war and brought back by his love for a local girl he made his wife, Isabel. After Isabel discovered a baby washed ashore, Tom was put in the position of either neglecting his duty as lighthousekeeper by not reporting the infant or depriving his wife of the child she latched onto. Tom chose the former, and it ate away at him even as he grew to love the child.

The problem is that Tom was the only character I cared about at all. I was surprised to learn that author M.L. Stedman was a woman because her female characters seemed hollow. Even Hannah, the grieving woman who lost her husband and baby, seemed somewhat unredeemable, as if she was wallowing in her loss rather than suffering from it. I reserved most of my ire for Isabel, though. She stole a child and then blamed her husband when she got caught.

M.L. Stedman is a decent writer and the story usually flowed well. It was an easy read that I finished quickly. I just wished the story was more satisfying.

Our next book club selection is Diane Keaton’s Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty. We will discuss the book on July 20th!

Header photo credit: Peter M Graham

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32 Responses to “Celebitchy Book Club: ‘The Light Between Oceans’ by M.L. Stedman”

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  1. Mia4S says:

    I was iffy on the book but I actually think it could be a great movie. Fassbender obviously but the key is the director Derek Cinefrance who did Blue Valentine and Place Beyond the Pines. If they adapt it to his tastes and aren’t slavish to the book, I think it could be pretty fantastic…and such a tearjerker!

    My recommendation would be skip the book and wait for the movie.

    • Kaiser says:

      I was picturing Fassbender throughout, that’s true, but when it comes down to it, I think they should get an all-Aussie cast. Joel Edgerton would actually be great in this role.

      • Mia4S says:

        Joel Edgerton is terrific but not enough of a name (yet) for a project like this (not that Fassy’s a mega-name (yet), but he’s got the international clout). I hope Edgerton gets a boost from Exodus, but I worry because he looks almost unrecognizable in it!

        In truth I’m just relieved it’s not Gosling. Like the Gos as a rule but he needs to mix it up a bit.

  2. cas says:

    I don’t know, besides from some annoying characters, I really enjoyed this book!

    I especially loved the descriptions of the island and the little village. I also really enjoyed the ending, and will admit I shed a tear or two. I do agree that the female characters were all pretty unlikeable and was also surprised to learn the author is a woman but besides from that, this has been my favourite Celebitchy bookclub choice so far.

  3. Badirene says:

    I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I have some sympathy for Tom and Isabel, their life on the island was to keep people alive with the lighthouse but they were surrounded by loss of life with her miscarriages, coupled with their isolation from other people and society mores in general, keeping Lucy becomes more understandable. Overall ok but will not reread.

  4. Tig says:

    I enjoyed the early sections in the book- esp how well she made the overwhelming isolation be so real. The characters and once the story left the island- not so much. I had the impression she had no idea how to finish the book, and really resorted to cliches near the end. And I get that Celebitchy is Fassy central, but I don’t see him as Tom at all. Second the Joel E choice.

  5. Kate says:

    I loved this book but it made me very, very sad. For everyone involved.

    • jc126 says:

      I read it a while ago. I liked reading it, even if they made bad choices, I could see how Isabel was out of her mind with grief and not thinking rationally. I also thought it was just unbearably sad, for every character.

  6. Nanea says:

    As I’m reading a lot of fact and fiction surrounding all things WWI right now, I wanted to give this a try. I had heard good things about The Light but by the end I was disappointed by the author’s lack of writing skills, by the big plot-holes, and by the inefficient editing. I’m a fast reader, and I read a lot on the commute to work and back, so the waste of time wasn’t all that bad.

    • Nimbolicious says:

      “Testament of Youth” by Vera Brittain is a fantastic memoir of life as a young woman during WWI. I hadn’t realized, until reading that book, how that war basically decimated an entire generation and set the stage for the narcissim of the Jazz Age.

  7. fairy godmother says:

    I am always on the look out for a new read, but after reading what everyone has written I am torn.

    Is this book really worth the effort? I can understand the sadness- yet is the writing that poor and plot lacking?

    • Chris says:

      Exactly. Life’s too short to read bad books and watch bad movies.

    • Tig says:

      Here’s a suggestion for you- The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman. I really liked it- I was lukewarm on her previous novel- The Dovekeepers-but this one was great.

    • Esmom says:

      While I wouldn’t call it highly literary, I wouldn’t call it trash either, although I probably wouldn’t have read it if my book club hadn’t chosen it. I found it to be a page turner, it made me really curious to know what the heck was going to happen. I made a couple predictions that were dead wrong so I guess it wasn’t totally predictable.

  8. cubfan34 says:

    It made me cry.

  9. the original bellaluna says:

    OT, but I just finished reading Rising Sun and it was AWESOME and enlightening. ( If they made it into a movie, I never saw it, but I kept hearing the older, wiser one in Sean Connery’s voice.)

  10. Lucretia says:

    I’ll confess that I liked the book. I only read it because I heard that Fassbender might be in the movie, directed by Cianfrance–a terrific pairing, in my view. I even understood why, isolated as they were on the island with the lighthouse, they felt themselves in a different world where no one else existed, and where the baby, with the dead father and missing mother, seemed to have no place else to go. I hope Fassbender does the film–whether Australian or not, I think he has the right sensibility to do it justice.

  11. Mal says:

    I loved this book and to echo what somebody else said above, it made me sad for all of the characters involved. I shed a few tears and that doesn’t happen for me with too many books. I can see how people would find the character of Isabel grating (I did as well at several points in the story) but I saw her as someone who was completely grief stricken and so desperate for a baby to complete her family that she became blinded by selfishness. I think it’s a real credit to the author’s writing that she was able to articulate the dilemma because I found myself wondering throughout what I would have done if I was in each of their shoes. Because in theory in sounds pretty black-and-white. Also loved her dscriptions of the rugged landscape and the isolation. Fassbender is my absolute favourite and I think he would do such a good job with Tom. Tom was perhaps the most well crafted character in the book and I could really feel his frustration and guilt and sense of powerlessness.

    • Esmom says:

      “Because in theory in sounds pretty black-and-white. ”

      This was the crux of a book club discussion I had about this a while ago, a few people thought — and I agreed — that the situation was definitely black and white, that Tom and Isabel should have never just “kept” the baby. But as time went on I agree that shades of gray came into play, particularly about who should ultimately have custody of the girl.

      My favorite part of the book was the vivid sense of place, you are so right that she nailed the rugged landscape and isolation — I was ready to move to a lighthouse in the middle of the ocean at some points.

      Count me in the club of those who were shocked that the author was a woman. But I didn’t think it was terrible for a first-time novelist, especially when you think of how crappy other similarly popular books have been (cough 50 Shades cough).

  12. Stephanie says:

    I enjoyed this book. I thought that it was thought provoking. I found Tom, Isabel and Hannah to be very sympathetic characters. I did cry at the end. It was a sad book but a good read.

  13. LAK says:

    I enjoyed this in as much as you can say you enjoyed a sad book.

    That said, I can’t see a film version, but maybe i’m just not the target audience for this type of film even if they stunt cast with a big name to give it a BO boost.

    • Stephanie says:

      I agree that it’s difficult to visualize a film. So much of the struggle is internal with these characters.

  14. jane16 says:

    Thanks for the reviews. It sounds really grim. I won’t bother.

  15. jen d. says:

    Okay, this has nothing to do with the book, but where was the stock photo at the top of the page taken? Is it Prince Edward Island? Because that photo looks a lot like a beach near where I used to live….

  16. moirrey says:

    Haha what a weird coincidence… I’ve had this book for about a year and only just started reading it a few days ago. I found it really hard to get into, and so far I’m only at about Chapter 6. I have no real opinions on it yet, other than that, so I’m gonna avoid reading this page for now.

  17. Kait says:

    As a woman who suffered ten miscarriages and ultimately adopted five kids, I had conflicting feelings on this book.

    I mean, I get it. I get Isabel’s grief and shitty decision to keep Lucy without looking for the mother. I even get the feeling of being owed a baby by the universe and feeling like she had finally been rewarded. I get feeling as though Lucy absolutely belonged to her because she just showed up.

    But seriously. Loss doesn’t evaporate when you finally get a baby, especially when that baby doesn’t really belong to you.

  18. Lahdidahbaby says:

    Loved reading the reviews, so smart, insightful, and on point. Thanks, CB, Kaiser, & Bedhead, for the trouble you take to have this book club – even when the book is less than wonderful I find it’s always a rich experience whenever this bunch reads/reviews one together. Reminds me every time of why I hang out here in the first place among this beautiful, ethical, unruly, profane & motley, knowledgeable & smart as hell bunch. Thanks.

  19. Wif says:

    Ultimately I think I liked the book because I found some of the writing really powerful. The page that comes to mind in particular was the way that villages felt the loss of their young men after WW1.

    The characters were not sympathetic, but I don’t really need to like a character to immerse myself in their journey. I really felt for Isabelle’s parents though, probably more than anyone. They showed the difficulty of suffering loss and having to wait for years for hope to return. How you grasp at that. So their secondary loss was tragic.

    Considering I found some of the writing so wonderful, I was surprised that the dialogue sounded so…sugary? Unrealistic?

    I also liked the premise and the setting.

  20. Nimbolicious says:

    I agree that much of the descriptive prose was just beautiful, particularly in the earlier part of the book where we hear about Tom as a broken war veteran and how he finds solace in life on Janus. I thought the dialogue was a little too psycho-babbly for the 1920′s, though. Plus, I found it sort of unbelievable that Isabel, who had a childhood friend that got knocked up, would have found the sadness of an orphanage so unbearable but then not consider adopting a child rather than stealing someone else’s.

    Of all the characters, I found Tom the most sympathetic. I could buy the fact that he was wrecked by guilt after the war (a very realistic affliction then and now) and was then torn between his love for Isabel and Lucy on the one hand, and his desire to do the right thing, on the other. I could see that he would try to appease everyone by keeping quiet but trying to let Hannah know that the kid was okay, even though it led to disastrous results.

    I sort of hated Hannah. Yeah, it was her kid, but I couldn’t stand the way she continually brushed aside the little girl’s grief and emotions after Lucy-Grace was returned to her. I was really rooting for Tom and Isabel to get her back, for them to die prior to Hannah, and then seeing Lucy reach out to a bitter Hannah and then mellowing her out.

    An entertaining enough read for me, all in all. I’ve read much better and much worse, but I have to admit that during the summer I like to get lost in different times and places without too much brain taxation. I also appreciated this book as a neutralizer to the trichlorocydic acid peel that was “Return of a King, a history book about the goat rodeo that was the 1839-42 English war for Afghanisthan and is frightening in its resemblance to modern-day forays into the region.