Review: On The Island by Tracey Garvis-Graves

Title On The Island
Author Tracey Garvis-Graves
Published August 16th, 2012 by Penguin
Pages 347 Pages
Intended Target Audience Adult
Genre & Keywords Contemporary, Romance, Adventure, Survival
Part of a Series? No
Source & Format Purchased from Chapters, Paperback
Find It On GoodreadsAmazon.comChapters


When thirty-year-old English teacher Anna Emerson is offered a job tutoring T.J. Callahan at his family’s summer rental in the Maldives, she accepts without hesitation; a working vacation on a tropical island trumps the library any day.

T.J. Callahan has no desire to leave town, not that anyone asked him. He’s almost seventeen and if having cancer wasn’t bad enough, now he has to spend his first summer in remission with his family – and a stack of overdue assignments – instead of his friends.

Anna and T.J. are en route to join T.J.’s family in the Maldives when the pilot of their seaplane suffers a fatal heart attack and crash-lands in the Indian Ocean. Adrift in shark-infested waters, their life jackets keep them afloat until they make it to the shore of an uninhabited island. Now Anna and T.J. just want to survive and they must work together to obtain water, food, fire, and shelter.

Their basic needs might be met but as the days turn to weeks, and then months, the castaways encounter plenty of other obstacles, including violent tropical storms, the many dangers lurking in the sea, and the possibility that T.J.’s cancer could return. As T.J. celebrates yet another birthday on the island, Anna begins to wonder if the biggest challenge of all might be living with a boy who is gradually becoming a man.

“I was thirty years old when the seaplane T.J. Callahan and I were traveling on crash-landed in the Indian Ocean. T.J. was sixteen, and three months into remission from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The pilot’s name was Mick, but he died before we hit the water.”

Hired as a tutor for sixteen-year-old high school student, T.J. Callahan, thirty-year-old school teacher Anna Emerson is invited along on the Callahan’s summer vacation to the Maldives in order to help T.J. catch up on all of the work he missed while seeking treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. While he’s less-than-thrilled to be spending his first summer in remission pouring over schoolwork, T.J. is drawn to Anna and can’t help but admire her beauty and poise. Having lost their place on the final seaplane booked to take them to the Callahan’s holiday resort, Anna and T.J. are relieved when they’re able to secure passage with a charter pilot at the last moment. But when their last-minute ‘miracle’ flight turns into an earth-shattering nightmare as their pilot, Mick, suffers a fatal heart attack mid-flight, Anna and T.J. soon find themselves plummeting headfirst into the Indian Ocean with little idea as to where they are or how to survive in such uncharted territory. Convinced that their rescue is imminent, Anna and T.J. initially struggle to survive on little more than rainwater, breadfruit, and a vain hope for salvation at the hands of T.J.‘s parents. Eventually struck with the devastating realization that they have likely been presumed dead and that all chance of rescue is essentially lost, Anna and T.J. have only one another to rely on. As they continue to grow closer in the ensuing days, weeks, months, and years that follow, the two fend off dehydration, disease, natural disasters, and every other imaginable foe, never realizing that the biggest threat of all, both to themselves as well as to their relationship, might arise from the unlikeliest of places.

“All the hope I’d clung to since our plane went down splintered into a million tiny shards that day, like a glass block someone pounded with a sledgehammer. I thought that if we could manage to be on the beach when the next plane flew over, we’d be rescued. Maybe they didn’t see us. Maybe they did, but they didn’t know we were missing. It didn’t matter now because they weren’t coming back.
My tears ended, and I wondered if I’d finally run out of them.”

If I’m being entirely honest, when I first heard of On The Island, I had absolutely no intention of reading it. I purposefully ignored the slew of positive reviews that began poring in shortly after its publication, convinced that this simply wasn’t the right book for me. A novel about the love affair between a thirty-year-old teacher and her sixteen-year-old student? No thanks. If I wanted to hear about that sort of story, I would simply watch the news! Eventually, however, my insatiable curiosity got the better of me. So, when I found a copy of this novel for 40% off, I quickly jumped at the chance to read it. And, for the most part, I’m glad I did. A hopeful story about finding love in the unlikeliest of places and the perseverance of the human spirit against unimaginable challenges, Tracey Garvis-Graves’s On The Island is an intriguing combination of a romance and adventure survival story that will delight readers and renew their faith in the indestructibility of love. While I do worry about the longevity of this story and whether or not I’ll remember it in a year’s time, Graves’ debut novel acted as a pleasant respite after a particularly difficult day and was a heart-warming story that I found surprisingly moving. With further editing and more attention paid to the pacing and logical fallacies within it, On The Island could easily have garnered more than the three stars I awarded it.

“If she had gotten sick, the only thing I could have done was watch her suffer. Bury her next to Mick when she died. I didn’t know if I could make it without her. The sound of her voice, her smile, her – those were the things that made living on the island bearable.”

Trapped in a holding pattern with her boyfriend of eight years who refuses to commit to either marriage or children, both of which are extremely important to her, thirty-year-old Anna Emerson is standing at a crossroads. Forced to make an important decision regarding the next phase of her life, Anna jumps at the opportunity to instruct T.J. and put a little space between her and her present predicament, knowing deep down that she is only staving off the inevitable breakup with her boyfriend, John. Passionate about her profession as a teacher, selfless, intelligent, level-headed and practical, it was heart-wrenching to watch as Anna initially struggled to adjust to her devastating new reality on the island, devoid of all the modern conveniences and basic necessities she had always relied on back home. Anna certainly had a more difficult time acclimatizing to the island than T.J. did, and while she does spend much of her time on the island close to or dissolving entirely into tears, something I would ordinarily find trying, I had little difficulty sympathizing with her character and it was easy to understand why she was in an almost constant state of emotional upheaval.

“You’re sweet to me.”
Pulling me closer, he said, “It’s not hard, Anna.”
I stared into T.J.’s eyes, and he started to sway. My arms went around his neck and we danced, moving in a circle, the sand soft and warm under our feet.
“You don’t need music, do you?”

“No,” T.J. said. “But I do need you.”

T.J. Callahan has experienced more unimaginable hardship in his short sixteen years of life than many will face in an entire lifetime. While only a teenager when the novel begins, it quickly becomes clear that T.J. is wise and mature well beyond his years. Having spent much of his youth being treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, T.J. missed out on many of the seminal moments of adolescence that his peers were able to experience. Tracey Garvis-Graves captures the voice of a teenage boy well, which is no mean feat for a female author. Touching upon the vulnerability and rough crudity of the adolescent male (There is one particular scene involving Anna’s underwear that had me cringing and laughing in equal measure), T.J.’s sexual awakening and emotional growth was extremely moving. While I would have preferred further reflection on the illness that had stolen a number of years of his life and his fear of its return, T.J. was by far my favourite of the two characters. In a strange way, the island affords him the opportunity to learn about himself in a way that he might not otherwise have been able to. As he learns to make a fire, fish, and build a shelter, T.J. discovers a previously undiscovered talent for working with his hands and an adoration for the outdoors he might never have realized had he simply followed the accepted, planned-upon path laid out before him prior to being marooned on the island. In fact, one of my favourite aspects of the novel was the ability to see how T.J. changed and matured over the course of the story. As his confidence grew, both in his interactions with Anna as well as in his survival capabilities, T.J.’s voice changed dramatically and I had little difficulty perceiving T.J. as a self-confident, self-assured man.

“You weren’t supposed to fall in love,” she whispered.
“Well, I did,” I said, looking into her eyes. “I’ve been in love with you for months. I’m telling you now because I think you love me, too, Anna. You just don’t think you’re supposed to. You’ll tell me when you’re ready. I can wait.”

Ironically enough, the aspect of this novel I was most worried about beforehand, namely the romance, ended up being one of the things I most enjoyed and had the least issue with. While I personally struggled to put myself in Anna’s shoes as I’ve always been attracted to older men (A constant source of concern for my parents and what I suspect is a direct result of one too many viewings of Colin Firth in 1995’s Pride and Prejudice as an adolescent), I could rationally understand why such a relationship occurred. Isolated from society and having only one another to rely on over the course of a number of years, Anna and T.J. were forced to grow closer out of necessity. Thanks in large part to Graves’ patience and forethought in establishing a strong foundation built on trust and friendship as opposed to a mere shared physical attraction, the development of Anna and T.J.’s relationship into a romantic and sexual one never felt forced or disingenuous. Hesitant readers should be made aware that their relationship is not consummated until T.J. is close to nineteen, a fact that I would have found extremely comforting had I know this prior to reading the novel. The sex scenes, which were used sparingly, were not gratuitous or exploitive, but rather tender and romantic. Without delving too deeply into their relationship for fear of spoiling something, I also appreciated that the course of Anna and T.J.’s relationship did not always run smooth and that they were eventually made to face the difficult reality of their rather unconventional relationship. This intelligent, rational approach renewed my faith in their relationship’s ability to endure over time. Anna and T.J. face external pressure and prejudice against their relationship, and in overcoming this, prove that true love really can conquer all. I liked that the reader’s initial uncertainty was reflected in Anna’s own hesitations and doubts, and that the irregular nature of their coupling was not merely swept under the rug or entirely disregarded. It feels strange to be put in the rather uncomfortable position of advocating a relationship I would ordinarily dismiss outright as wrong and immoral, but such in the power of Graves’ writing in that I was never made to feel uncomfortable with the evolution of Anna and T.J.’s relationship, which I believe is a admirable feat in and of itself given their rather vast age difference and the manner in which they first met.

“What I didn’t admit, though, was that she could have brought me to my knees with one touch of her hand, if she put it in the right place.
I wondered if she knew that.”

The majority of my issues with this novel stemmed from the writing. That isn’t to say that it’s necessarily bad, but rather merely not to my particular taste. Told primarily in short, uncomplicated sentences, On The Island is written in a simplistic, unvarnished, straight-to-the-point narrative style. While I thought this complimented this particular story – a survival situation in which only one’s basic, fundamental needs are met – I couldn’t help but wish for something more. I’ll be the first to admit that I prefer a more descriptive, evocative style, but recognize that while Graves’ technique was not to my taste, I have absolutely no doubt that many others will be partial to it. That said, these stylistic choices did impact my overall interest in the novel and I found the pace lagged as a result. I never felt compelled to keep reading, and found that while this novel did pick up towards the end, On The Island suffered from a slow start during which I often had to force myself to keep reading. There were also a few too many convenient coincidences for my liking (i.e. Their lost luggage washing ashore when they need it most, etc) and logical fallacies which I simply couldn’t ignore, despite what I consider my rather vast suspension of disbelief. The fact that a bottle of shaving cream seemingly lasts Anna and T.J. for well over a year was something that I couldn’t accept (Hell, I’m lucky if they last a month or two, and I’m not sharing with anyone!) There was also a distinct lack of narrative tension or any sense of urgency, both of which I would normally expect from this sort of story. Despite the many life-threatening obstacles they faced, there was never any doubt in my mind as to Anna and T.J.’s safety, and most of the conflict they encountered was ordinarily resolved within a couple of pages.

“I kissed her as soon as we were inside her apartment, and I wasn’t gentle about it, holding her face firmly in my hands and pressing my lips hard against hers. She wasn’t anyone’s to own – I knew that – but right then she was mine.”

Technically speaking, On The Island could have benefited from further editing. I encountered a number of typos and plot inconsistencies throughout (i.e. T.J. is incorrectly referred to as nineteen at one point when in actuality he is eighteen, a fact that is reinforced a few pages later), neither of which I think are acceptable in a polished, finished publication. Written from the alternating first-person perspective of both Anna and T.J., Tracey Garvis-Graves captured both characters’ voices well and I never had any trouble differentiating between the two. That said, I never felt as though I was able to intimately connect with either Anna or T.J. There was a formality to their language (i.e. Referring to dolphins as “such social creatures”, etc) that created a distance between myself and the characters, and meant that there were times when their dialogue did not ring true, something which has always been important to me.

“I don’t fit in your world.”
“Neither do I,” he said, his expression tender yet resolute. “So let’s make our own. We’ve done it before.”

The perfect choice for fans of The Blue Lagoon, or Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, On The Island is a simple, relatively light-hearted romance set against the backdrop of a tropical island. Although in desperate need of further editing and lacking any semblance of narrative tension or a sense of urgency, both of which I would ordinarily expect in this type of survival story, Tracey Garvis-Graves succeeds in creating a sweet, heart-warming romance that you can’t help but enjoy. While hardly one of the best, most compelling or memorable stories I’ve read recently, Graves’ debut novel demonstrates an immense amount of promise and I will not hesitate to read future works by this author. If you’re searching for an uncomplicated story that you can pick up and put down and which will not prompt much further reflection, On The Island is a wonderful, if simplistic, story that will fit the bill.

Overall Rating

Around The Web

Still not sure this is the right book for you? Why not listen to what some other bloggers had to say about it?

● Bree @ All The Books I Can Read wrote “Whilst I did enjoy On The Island for me it still lacked that crucial edge that would’ve made this a truly unputdownable read.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

● Ginger @ GReads! wrote “If you’re on the fence about this one, as I was before, I strongly urge you to give it a go. Take a chance with this story, it may just surprise you.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

● Jess @ Gone With The Words wrote “Just know that it has heart and hope and love pouring out of it in waves. Thank you, Tracey Garvis Graves, for giving me one of my favorite reads this year and I urge all of you to read it. It will most certainly steal your heart.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

9 Responses

  1. I read this one last year and loved Anna and T.J’s love story. I didn’t think it was at all controversial; actually really sweet. You make some good points on the writing style. I remember thinking the same while I was reading this one.

    The author wrote a great guest post for me last year in which she detailed her journey to publication. Nobody would give this book the time of day when she pitched it, (too hard to sell, maybe too controversial etc.) but then when it went on to be a self-pubbed best seller everyone wanted to snap it up. Funny how things go!
    Leanna recently posted…Competition Winners: Summer Spotlight// YA Summer Prize Pack// Impostor// Penguin Chats // Angelfall // Summer Arc Giveaway //Amazon Voucher +++ A brief blog break!My Profile

    1. I agree – The controversy was overblown and the reality was tame in comparison to what I had heard about the novel beforehand. I honestly had no problem with the romance between Anna and T.J. and it seemed logical given their predicament. I would have been more surprised had nothing blossomed between them given how long they spent together in isolation.

      It was really interesting to hear about On The Island‘s road to publication. I had no idea that this was initially a self-published story! While I can understand a publisher’s hesitation based on nothing but the premise alone, it really is a good basic concept and I’m sure their reservations could have been conquered had they given the manuscript half a chance. It wasn’t half as offensive or taboo as it initially sounds. I guess hindsight is twenty-twenty and I can only imagine that many of them are kicking themselves now!
      Jen @ Pop! Goes The Reader recently posted…Review: On The Island by Tracey Garvis-GravesMy Profile

  2. Like you, I’ve heard so much about “On the Island” but I stayed away because the plot descriptions always gave me the heebie jeebies. I’m glad that the romance is sweet and heartwarming rather than exploitative, but your comments about her writing ability aren’t exactly making me want to run out and grab a copy! This might be one I save for my holiday reading pile when I want something breezy.

    Also echoing your feelings re Colin Firth in “Pride & Prejudice” … or Colin Firth in anything, really.

    1. I think, for me, this novel was a lesson in giving every book a chance, despite any reservations I might have. It wasn’t fair to judge it based on hearsay alone, and although I didn’t love it as much as others seem to have, it was a decent story and the romance was very sweet. I feel a little silly for being close-minded about it beforehand!

      As I said, although the writing style wasn’t to my particular taste, I can certainly understand why it would appeal to others. 😀 I hope that doesn’t deter you from picking it up entirely! As you said, it’s a good choice if you’re looking for something simple and reliable.
      Jen @ Pop! Goes The Reader recently posted…Review: On The Island by Tracey Garvis-GravesMy Profile

  3. What a coincidence! I JUST finished this book this morning.

    I had the EXACT same reaction as you when I first heard about it. Totally squicked out, even though I logically knew I shouldn’t be, I didn’t want to read it. But then Racquel, my co-blogger kept telling me how amazing it was, and I’d several people back her up. The idea grew on me. I was curious. I wanted to read it! So, finally, I did. And it was so great!

    There is one particular scene involving Anna’s underwear that had me cringing and laughing in equal measure

    YES. That is the perfect description of my reaction to that scene.

    BAH. That love quote. I didn’t write down many quotes from this book, because while I enjoyed the story, the writing was fairly average. But I wrote down that exchange, because it was perfect. ♥

    Yes, I agree about the coincidences. The dolphins and the luggage, mostly. Although I could have done with a couple, these two were the only ones that kind of pulled me out and made me suspend reality more than I wanted for a minute or two.

    I really loved the way she handled their relationship, most of all. I loved the development and how it came about, how it took a long time but was ultimately a choice they both accepted. I like how she conveyed “after” when they had to deal with the backlash and repercussions, even though they were difficult to read about. Because realistically, that is what would happen with a relationship like theirs.

    Overall, although I also had a few issues with it, I really enjoyed this book!

    Sheesh! This comment is long enough it could almost double for my review, LOL. Pardon my rambling! 🙂
    Sharon @ The Book Barbies recently posted…Bout of Books 8.0: Goals & UpdatesMy Profile

    1. First of all – Please don’t apologize for the length of your comment, I absolutely loved reading it! 😀 I love a good ramble.

      As I said in a comment above yours, this novel really taught me an important lesson about being open-minded about every book and not letting other people’s hesitation or negative experience necessarily dissuade me from trying a book myself. I fell victim to the hype, and in reality the novel wasn’t half as controversial or taboo as I initially expected. Funnily enough, the romance was actually my favourite part!

      If I’m being honest, I really struggled when it came time to choose quotations to include in this review. This normally doesn’t pose much of an issue, but because the writing style wasn’t to my taste, I had a difficult time choosing ones to highlight. That said, I adore the quote about making their own place in the world despite other people’s reservations about their relationship. I found that extremely touching!

      In regards to the development of Anna and T.J.’s relationship, that was a real highlight of the novel for me, surprisingly enough. Like you, I thought it was handled with extreme care and was tastefully done, and I could understand why something like that arose given their situation. I would have found it more unrealistic had nothing developed between them. I was also pleasantly surprised by Graves’ rather daring choice to have them rescued relatively early on in the novel. While I know many felt as though the novel lagged after the two returned to society and struggled to maintain their relationship in the face of society’s reservations, I really enjoyed the fact that their relationship was tested and prevailed. Had it simply continued on without a hitch, I would have found that extremely unrealistic. Because they were able to work through their issues, I felt that added an additional depth to their story that I really liked!

      I guess now I should apologize for the lengthy comment, eh? 😆
      Jen @ Pop! Goes The Reader recently posted…Review: On The Island by Tracey Garvis-GravesMy Profile

      1. I could see how hype would definitely play into how much you did or did not enjoy it. Hype has a terribly nasty way of doing that! Thankfully, though I had seen good things about it, it wasn’t enough to get my expectations sky high.

        I agree about the timing! Though I think the book did lag a bit after the rescue, I very much appreciated everything that was shown! And I honestly think that it would have lagged had they stayed on the island longer. Plus, Graves took a realistic approach toward the end, showing their supplies running out and whatnot. They honestly would have been a lot closer to death not too much farther in the future. So there really wasn’t any choice without making it drag on unnecessarily.

        The relationship was definitely the high point for me, as well! Although weirdly enough, I still wouldn’t exactly call this a romance. Love story, yes. Romance, no. It is a story of survival, of two people who grew to love each other and depend on each other and live their lives together. But it wasn’t particularly romantic. Which perhaps makes NO sense at all to anyone but me, but I can’t think of any other way of putting it, haha.
        Sharon @ The Book Barbies recently posted…Bout of Books 8.0: Goals & UpdatesMy Profile

  4. 30 year old teacher and a 16 year old cancerous boy? Stuck in an island together? Scandalous! While I don’t usually read much adult books, I’m truly curious! Its plot does sound very much like Blue Lagoon’s but I’m sure the age gap is definitely a twist. I’m not picky when it comes to writing style (I really should start being more keen about it), so maybe the simplistic sentences won’t matter much to me. But the fact that you never had to doubt TJ and Anna’s safety- it makes it less thrilling. I’m glad the romance was a high-point for you though! And the quotes you included were pretty sweet. I must admit, I wanna read the scene about Anna’s underwear. (Lol did that sound pervy? Yes it did hahahah) Fantastic review, Jen! If I find a copy on sale like you did, I might just get this!
    Hazel recently posted…Swoon Worthy Saturday #7My Profile

  5. Yeah, I am hesitant to read this for the same reason you were, because the concept really grosses me out. I am glad to hear the relationship isn’t consummated until he turns almost 19 though. Still, I think I may end up not reading this, I just have way too many things I’d rather read instead, ya know?
    April Books & Wine recently posted…Saints | Gene Luen Yang | Book ReviewMy Profile

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Hi! I’m Jen! I’m a thirty-something introvert who loves nothing more than the cozy comfort of home and snuggling my two rescue cats, Pepper and Pancakes. I also enjoy running, jigsaw puzzles, baking and everything Disney. Few things bring me more joy than helping a reader find the right book for them!