#LiteraryWives: Red Island House by Andrea Lee

Literary Wives is an on-line book group that examines the meaning and role of wife in different books. Four times a year, we post and discuss a book with this question in mind:

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

Don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book!

Synopsis: Shay is surprised when her husband Senna declares his intention to build her a spectacular dream house on an idyllic beach in the tropical island nation of Madagascar. But the Red Island House casts a spell from the moment she sees it, and before she knows it Shay has become the somewhat reluctant mistress of a sprawling household, caught between her privileged American upbringing and education, and her connection to the continent of her ancestors.

WARNING: Possible Spoilers Ahead!

Red Island House is well-written and interesting, a good read for someone who likes interconnected short stories and enjoys exploring ideas of colonialism, classism, and customs from other countries. (I think this is the first book I’ve read set primarily in Madagascar.) I liked the way Shay saw things from her perspective: her discomfort with being the head of the Red House–in a country she only lives in two or three months a year–a foreign “mistress” of the servants who are natives of the country.

However, as I was reading this for Literary Wives, I felt a little disappointed and impatient with the parts of the book (which was much of it) that had little to do with our topic.

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

I question Shay’s decision to marry Senna in the first place. A successful businessman from Italy, he builds a luxurious vacation home on a beach in Madagascar as a status symbol. Then he finds a wife to place in this home and calls her the Lady of the House. As Shay points out, this feels very colonialist. And as an African-American professor, her discomfort in this role is palpable. After all the years they remain married, this doesn’t seem to change. I don’t remember her discussing it with him – I feel like there are several things about him that she just accepts as inalterable. Like the fact that he’s unfaithful, over and over.

They seemed, at one point, to have good times in their marriage. Because of the short story structure of the book, a lot of time is skipped over, which makes it hard to tell how much of their marriage was good and how much was bad. They have two children, which they both enjoy. Shay worries about them growing up with so much privilege. Senna doesn’t seem to recognize their privilege to the extent that Shay does, if at all. That is something I don’t think I could live with – Senna’s sense of entitlement.

In the end, Shay has to decide whether to stay together, despite the huge rift in their marriage, or end it. Her American sister pushes her to end it, while her Italian friends urge her to stay married.

The main take-away I get from Shay’s experience as Senna’s wife is that big differences are very hard to overcome. There was 15 years between them and they came from different cultures, but I think it was the difference in their core values that was impossible to ignore.

As their children grow older, Shay has become reluctantly aware that she and her husband have less and less in common; or maybe there wasn’t much to start with, except for their two fiercely independent natures. Now, 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. Graver than this, she is beginning to realize that buried deep in their marriage is a permanent incomprehension, a profound disagreement as to what truly matters in life.

Was anyone else worried about their children? There wasn’t enough focus on them to determine how they turned out in the end.

Join us in December for our discussion of State of the Union by Nick Hornsby!

16 thoughts on “#LiteraryWives: Red Island House by Andrea Lee

  1. A Life in Books says:

    Funnily enough, I was talking with my partner about mismatches in core values within a relationship just yesterday. We both felt it would be impossible to overcome, much more so that coming from different backgrounds.

    • Naomi says:

      Yes! And, at first, I was just thinking they came from different cultures, different generations, etc., but then I realized it went way beyond that. I wonder if it’s the kind of thing that’s harder to see when you’re in it.

  2. whatmeread says:

    I didn’t really think about the children very much, probably because they are only peripheral characters and they seem happy when they are shown. I was more reveling in the rich descriptions of the country and the people and thinking about Shay’s concerns.

  3. Karissa says:

    I think a lot of those core values that we each have do come from our culture and family of origin, though not always of course. I agree that those are hard differences to overcome. My husband and I have commented on how fortunate we feel to have been so in sync the past two years in our feelings and approaches to the pandemic but I think we are in sync because we share those core values. I can’t imagine how hard it would be in a marriage where those were at odds.

    • Naomi says:

      That’s a good example. I think the pandemic has tested a lot of marriages – it’s so much more difficult when you’re not on the same page.

  4. annelogan17 says:

    I can see why the format of linked short stories would make it difficult to examine and analyze the state of a marriage. Were they happy together most of the time? So much happens in between stories, so whatever the author chooses to talk about is selective for a reason. Beautiful cover tho!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s