Literary Wives Club: Red Island House by Andrea Lee

My second read with the Literary Wives online book club, after The Sentence. The other members will also be posting their thoughts this week; I’ll add links as we go.

Kay at What Me Read

Lynn at Smoke & Mirrors

Naomi at Consumed by Ink

Red Island House by Andrea Lee – a new author for me – is a linked short story collection that spans 20 years or so on Naratrany, a small (fictional) island off of northwest Madagascar, and stars an odd couple. Senna is a rich Italian businessman; Shay is an African American professor 15 years his junior. They meet at a wedding in Como and Senna builds his tropical island getaway at the same time as he courts her. Lee plays up the irony of the fact that Shay ends up being the lady of the house, served by all Black staff.

Colonial attitudes linger among the white incomers. I loved the long first story, “The Packet War,” in which Shay has a low-key feud with Senna’s bombastic Greek overseer, Kristos. The locals believe that, because Senna did not throw a traditional housewarming party for his opulent complex, the Red House is cursed (there are some magic realist scenes reflecting this, and the servants prescribe Shay some rituals to perform to combat it). And the same comes to seem true of their marriage. Or does their partnership just have your average ups and downs?


The main question we ask about the books we read for Literary Wives is:

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?


Shay and Senna eventually have two children, Roby and Augustina, and spend most of the year in Italy, only coming back to Madagascar for long holidays in the summer and winter. She tolerates her husband’s presumed affairs until he has one so blatant she can’t ignore it. By this time their children are grown and Senna uses the Red House for get-togethers with his ageing playboy friends. Both have realized how little they have in common. They spend much of their time apart; the love that once bound them despite their differences appears to be gone.

as the fascination of their mutual foreignness wears away over the years, they find they share few tastes and interests outside of family life, and it is easy to let that independence pull them apart.

The long story of their love and marriage has always been full of stops and starts, dependent on dashingly improvised bridges over differences in temperament and culture.

By the end of the book they’re facing the fact that they need to make a decision on whether to try to heal their rift or formalize it.

The message I take from this novel is that, if coming from very different backgrounds, you may have to put in extra effort to make a partnership work. Perhaps, too, to an extent, Senna and Shay could be read as symbols of the colonizer and the exotic prey. But there’s a cautionary tale here for all of us in long-term relationships: it’s easy to drift apart. (I remember, at the time of my parents’ divorce, my mother’s colleague astutely noting that their house was too big, such that it was too easy for them to live separate lives in it.)


In general, I liked Lee’s passages describing Madagascar (I was interested to note the Chinese infrastructure projects), and the stories that focus on this family. Others about peripheral characters – beauty parlour customers, a local half-Italian boy, visits from friends – engaged me less, and I was irked by the present tense, so pervasive that it’s even used to, nonsensically, describe actions that took place in the past. I doubt I’d try another by Lee.

With thanks to Scribner UK for the free copy for review.


Next book: State of the Union by Nick Hornby in December (a reread for me).

13 responses

  1. It was that last story that really drove home for me how fundamentally different Shay and Senna are. I don’t understand how one can stay married to someone who–not only sees nothing wrong with the exploitation of those young women/girls–but fully participates himself.

    I didn’t notice the overuse of the present tense, but possibly because I put the book down part way through and took a long break from it before coming back to it. It took me a long time to get through the whole thing, but not because I didn’t think it was good. It felt distant – like someone making observations from afar, even on her own life.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I found Senna pretty repulsive throughout. It’s harder to care about a marriage when you aren’t sure why one of the partners got into it in the first place! That’s a good point about the distance — Lee takes a god-like omniscient perspective on her characters. Maybe that made me less emotionally involved.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think it did for me!


  2. That’s an interesting observation, Naomi, about someone making observations from afar. Maybe that’s how she got through all those years and her husbands many affairs. I just saw the couple as too fundamentally mismatched to make it last. I liked the novel better than you did, Beck, and the tense never bothered me, maybe because I’ve read plenty of books in present tense. I think this one may be going on my best books list for the year.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You wonder how ‘opposites attract’ ever got to be associated with happy partnerships!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh no, we live in a house that’s too big and have separate zones!! This does sound interesting, although I’m still not big on marriage-gone-sour novels …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No, I have a feeling you wouldn’t like lots of the books we do for Literary Wives — too many marriages in peril!

      If I could reel off the square footage of my parents’ old house, you’d know what I mean. Basically the equivalent of more than a whole British dwelling to themselves.


  4. I quite like linked short stories, but you haven’t persuaded me to put this on the list.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I adore linked stories, but too often I wondered why some of these were included — the ones about secondary characters seemed to be there to add ‘local colour’ rather than to advance the plot.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I can see why the large house might be an issue but the converse is also a problem. I e seen lots of older couples downsize and they get very frustrated thst they are thrown physically together for so much of the day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s true, also both being retired for the first time and having to share close quarters. I’ve known wives in particular who get frustrated with their hubby being around all the time and encourage as many outings and hobbies as possible!


      1. Yes that’s one of the scenarios I was thinking about.


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