Jennifer Reese
June 13, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Easter Island

Current Status
In Season
Jennifer Vanderbes
Dial Press

We gave it a B-

Why, centuries ago, did the native people of Easter Island carve gargantuan stone heads? How, in the apparent absence of timber, did they drag these moai from quarries to locations circling the tiny island? Why were the statues later toppled? These are the perennial mysteries Jennifer Vanderbes places at the heart of Easter Island, her chilly, elegant, and extremely ambitious first novel. In the tradition of A.S. Byatt’s 1990 masterpiece Possession, Vanderbes braids narratives of characters from different eras in an attempt to solve an intellectual puzzle. It is a polished, readable, honorable, and, in the end, curiously bloodless piece of fiction. In 1912, Elsa Pendleton, yet another in the great literary line of impoverished, intelligent British governesses, resigns herself to a passionless marriage to the unappealing older anthropologist Edward Beazley, a colleague of her late father who agrees to support both Elsa and her retarded sister, Alice. Edward (“only reading and writing and the occasional mapmaking seem to relax him”) gives young Elsa an edition of Darwin as a wedding gift and suggests a honeymoon expedition, accompanied by Alice, to Easter Island in the South Pacific. With the onset of World War I, they are soon joined by a squadron of German battleships. It is a voyage with all the classic earmarks of disaster: Repressed Europeans–Elsa and Edward do not often share a cot–visit a land where people eat avocados and guavas and practice polygamy. The Beazleys set up camp on a beach where Elsa tries to learn the history of the island; Edward and Alice spend their days excavating moai. Or so they say. This story line is crosscut with a 1973 narrative featuring the recently widowed Greer Farraday, a 33-year-old botanist who has packed up centrifuge and microscope and moved to Easter Island to study ancient pollen. She has her own emotional preoccupations (her dead husband, also a botanist, used to steal her ideas) and her own theories about the moai. With the help of a disheveled elderly woman who lives in a cave, Greer takes up where Elsa left off 60 years before in trying to unlock the island’s secrets. There’s an awful lot going on here, which is both the beauty of the book and its greatest shortcoming. Vanderbes has constructed an intricate and ingenious tale, but it comes at the expense of the characters: People don’t drive this cerebral novel so much as wander through it. Greer, for instance, is saddled with a long and overdetermined back story that ultimately turns out to have little relevance to the action. And poor Elsa, to all appearances a smart, sensible woman, suffers a sudden breakdown that can only be understood as a requirement of the exacting plot. It’s impossible not to admire Easter Island; it’s somewhat harder to warm to it.

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