Bride Island
by Alexandra Enders

Published: 2007-06-26
Paperback : 276 pages
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"Enders writes with such bone-deep honesty we know from the opening pages that it is winner take all." —Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of The Deep End of The Ocean

Can a mother reclaim the daughter she lost?

Six years ago, Polly Birdswell—drinking and deeply unhappy—made a ...

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"Enders writes with such bone-deep honesty we know from the opening pages that it is winner take all." —Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of The Deep End of The Ocean

Can a mother reclaim the daughter she lost?

Six years ago, Polly Birdswell—drinking and deeply unhappy—made a decision that changed her life forever. Believing she could spare her young daughter a legacy of self-destruction, she left her husband and child and moved north to a coastal town in Maine. There, close to Bride Island, the beloved family retreat she considers her true home, she set about getting sober and remaking her life.

Now Polly desperately wants seven-year-old Monroe back and is determined to prove—to herself especially—she's a stable and loving mother. At the same time, a sudden decision to sell Bride Island unleashes a wave of family greed that endangers the island's future. As Polly and her siblings try to claim ownership of what they love, they discover some things can never truly be owned, and Polly must again ask herself what she's willing to relinquish. Beautifully written and emotionally complex, Bride Island is a poignant debut novel about love, motherhood, and the haunting and sometimes conflicting pulls of family and the places that shape us.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.


Chapter 1

“All right, you have half,” my daughter says. She parcels out the remaining grapes one by one. “Six for you, six for me.” They are the last on the stalk, the ones we thought too tiny to eat before, some no bigger than raisins, one little pip the size of a pomegranate seed. I want to tell Monroe to keep them all, I’m half heart broken that she’s so judicious, surely in a child greed and self-interest would be more appropriate? But Daniel, her father, has trained her well, and besides, I’m hungry and the rest of the food is in the trunk of the car. So I eat the tiny grapes, each one popping as my teeth pierce the sweet red skin.


We are sitting in my old car, a chartreuse Citroën 2CV, on the headland out by Marguerite Cove. Through the windshield we watch the small white capped waves of the bay. We should see Steven and the boat that will take us out to Bride Island any time now. Rays of afternoon sun slant through the open sunroof. The air smells of the sea and of cut grass. It is only the third Friday in August but already there are intimations of fall: roadside ditches bristle with goldenrod; corners of the blueberry fields have spread crimson; the nights are extra starry and cold. My last boyfriend, a gardener from California, charmed me by saying this was the most poignant landscape he’d ever seen.

The tape comes to an end and my daughter flips it. Monroe, who will turn seven in September, has discovered James Taylor this visit; this is the third time today we’re hearing “You’ve Got a Friend.” These are some of the things I have discovered about her: she weighs fifty pounds and is the third-tallest girl in her class. She wants to pierce her nose when she is ten. She likes the Spice Girls but thinks Pokemon is babyish. She can swing beneath the monkey bars but can’t do a cartwheel. Purple is her favorite color and blueberries her favorite food.

“Excited?” I ask, rubbing her hand. Her fingers, tanned brown from earlier vacations at the beach with her father, have white patches between them. I myself have mixed feelings about this weekend, our annual visit to my mother and stepfather’s island. Monnie and I have already spent two and a half of our allotted three weeks, and for me the visit marks the culmination of our time together, a shifting from anticipation to relinquishment.

She nods. “I would be more, except after that it’s only two days.”

“I know,” I say. We’re both very quiet for a minute, listening to the music.

“I wish I could live with you.”

“You do?” This surprises me. She finds my life and tiny house in Rockhaven “weird”—she told me so the first day of her visit. “But wouldn’t you miss your dad and Chloe and your brothers?”

She rubs one tanned finger along the dashboard. “Not really.” I’m secretly elated by this and allow myself a glow of pride. Take that, Daniel, I think, you and all your piano lessons and horseback riding.

“Well, what about your friends?”

“I’d e-mail them.”

I don’t remind her I don’t have a computer. “But you said my house is a dump.”

She thinks a moment. “I know, we could live in the car! We could drive all over and sleep on the seats. That would be so cool.”

The funny thing is I can imagine it too—as it is, the Green Hornet is almost as much home as my house—and I feel all hopeful for a minute. But I know it’s just a pipe dream, and Monroe doesn’t really mean it either. I look over with affection at my daughter in bell-bottoms, her hair covered with plastic butterflies, a big sun smiling on her tie-dyed T-shirt. “What are you anyway, some kind of hippie chick?” I poke her belly. “I can’t believe your dad lets you dress like this.”

“Ouch,” she giggles.

“Ask Dad about his hippie days sometime.”

“Dad was a hippie?”

“Are we still listening to this tape? I can’t believe it. You’ve got to put something else on.” And speaking of putting something else on, I know my mother won’t like the way Monroe is dressed, so under pretext of it being cold on the boat, I get her to change her clothes. Her body is so sturdy and fine. I have to stop myself sometimes from slapping her rump, I find it so cute. I have to remind myself that she is no longer a baby, that I can’t tickle and hold her as if I own her. She’s adamant about keeping the plastic butterfly clips intact though, and after a half-hearted argument, I let her. I’ve exercised enough maternal authority for one day.

As if my own mother’s presence has invaded the car, I notice how filthy it is: crumbs, coffee cups, glue-hardened scraps of Monroe’s projects, the detritus of the last two weeks. We’ve spent much of Monnie’s visit driving, racking up miles along the secondary roads on the Maine peninsula I call home. Monroe sits shotgun, in charge of snacks and safety. “Batten down the hatches,” she says when we fasten our seat belts. “Righto,” I say. I know I should track down safer, more up-to-date straps, but I feel lucky the Green Hornet has any seat belts at all. And besides, I’ve always felt safe with Monroe. Even when she was tiny. As a baby buckled in her little seat in the back of the car, it seemed nothing bad could happen, as if a state of grace emanated from her very being, protecting us.

The Maine winters are hard on the Green Hornet and she shows her age. Last April I replaced the brakes. Next I’m angling for a new clutch. I like doing the work myself. It’s not so difficult—just parts broken down, gathered up, rearranged to be in better harmony. This summer Monnie and I are interested in celestial harmony and realignment. We’ve attached glow-in-the-dark stars to the roof of the car, though we rarely see them because the days are so long. Sometimes, after dark when I sneak a smoke, I creep down to the car to look at them. It comforts me to think I’ll still have them after Monnie’s gone home to her dad.

I’m collecting stained cups and crumpled juice boxes in a bag when Monroe shouts, “I see him.” Steven’s boat, a midsize fishing boat that delivers mail to all the islands in the summer, rounds the point into the cove. Monroe stands up through the sunroof and hoots and waves and I step out and yell. Steven toots in response. We bungle around, fumbling and laughing, I’m getting our gear together, closing windows and stuffing sweaters, books, water bottles into a backpack. “Quick,” I shout, handing Monroe a bag to carry down to the dock, both of us enjoying the sense of urgency. Slamming the doors shut, but not locking them—the Green Hornet has no functioning locks, plus there’s nothing to steal—we head toward the water.

Steven’s old dog Skippy leaps from the boat before it’s even properly alongside the dock and starts licking my bare legs. I’ve forgotten that about him, how much he likes moisturizer. “That Skippy,” Steven says in his sexy drawl as he hands me a line, “always licking the girls’ legs.” He looks exactly the same, and I find his weathered face and self- deprecating manner as appealing as always. I give him a good long hug. We’ve been friends since I was twelve. He’s just younger than me, and I’ve had a crush on him forever, before during and after the time we slept together.

As we load the boat Steven sees Monnie eyeing the lobster traps and asks if she knows how they work. She shrugs, so he explains how the lobsters crawl in this ahere part (I swear he’s exaggerating his accent today) where the bait is, and then after they’ve eaten they go into the next room to digest. “We call that room the parlor.” He pronounces it “parl,” then corrects himself: Par-LOR. Par-LOR. Monnie giggles. He shows her the little slot where the undersized lobsters crawl out and then pretends his hand is one and tickles her. She’s still giggling as he sets her up on the high bench in the cockpit behind the steering wheel.

And off we go. Always there’s this magical moment as we leave the land; the colors grow clearer, the smells fresher and stronger. I shiver happily in my windbreaker and huddle next to Steven, breathing in the particular odor of gasoline, brine, and cigarette smoke. We touch shoulder to shoulder, just friendly, and I pretend for a minute we’re a family. I don’t even believe all that myth about family, but for a moment it’s nice to pretend.

He wipes a fleck of ash from my cheek.

“I was telling Monroe about the boat we had as kids,” I say.

“That old tub you found?” He turns to Monroe. “Least seaworthy vessel I’ve ever seen.”

“We had fun though.”

“We did.” He half laughs as if remembering something. “I have stories I can tell you. When you’re older.”

“What stories?” Monroe asks.

“Good ones. Your ma will be bribing me not to tell. Ouf,” he says as I elbow him. He leans over me to flick a lever, the throttle. The walkie-talkie barks and crackles but I don’t bother making out what it says. I turn to watch the wake of the boat. On the shore the Green Hornet looks small and vulnerable. I wave a private goodbye to it, wish it free of vandals and other threats.

I wouldn’t tell this to Monroe, or anyone in my family, but I lived in a car once for four weeks. That was after I left Dan, before I got sober, before the Green Hornet became mine. It was a low point in my life, I admit, but sometimes I look back at it with nostalgia and wistfulness. Everything was simple and contained.

My mother and stepfather have spent several weeks on Bride Island every August for the last twenty-three years. At this point it’s so much a part of me it feels like it belongs to my family, though it doesn’t, really. It belongs to my stepfather. Apparently the man Herbert bought it from, Gus Pederson, is in jail for drug trafficking. The story goes that small planes used to swoop in at strange hours of the night to drop off unidentified packages. I’m not sure I buy that, though as teenagers my brothers and I, who spent an inordinate amount of time cooking up schemes for getting more drugs out to the island, were entranced with the idea that one lone plane from Colombia might not know of Gus Pederson’s fate and it would show up in the middle of the night, drop a kilo (five kilos, a hundred, we could never agree how much) of cocaine, and we’d all be rich. Pipe dreams, indeed.

Bride Island is one of my favorite places in the world, but I usually spend only a few days here each summer, often with Monnie. I’m a painful disappointment to my mother and I’m all too aware she thinks I’ve made the wrong choices: I live in Maine full-time, instead of just summering here; I’m an alcoholic who had to stop drinking, a tiresome breach in my mother’s world; I’m an artist, but I make pots, not portraits of dogs or flowers; I support myself by working with my hands; and I’m divorced, without custody of my daughter. All true, and yet the way I see it, I am alive, I am sane, plus I have my sobriety and a gazillion slogans to fit any occasion. Let Go and Let God, I murmur now.

The wind whips my hair away from my face. Out here on the water, the shadows are less long, and even through the sea breezes I feel the warmth of the late afternoon sun. A gull loops by and I turn to Monroe to point out a grey seal sunbathing on a rock. She is lounging against the lobster pots, pretending to read our book of Greek myths. The pages keep ruffling and she has a hard time holding on to them. But she perseveres, softly talking to herself. Monnie loves the stories, doesn’t seem fazed by them, even though the edition we’ve borrowed from the library is pretty graphic. Near the beginning, there’s a picture of Cronus who has eaten his own children—the babies fill up cavities in his chest—and his wife is handing him a stone in place of his sixth son, Zeus. I’m fascinated by this literal depiction of the harm parents can do their children.

Skippy stretches out in a patch of sun. He grunts, twitches his wirehair brows. I scratch his bald little tummy. Steven hands Monroe a life preserver. I make a dopey face and help her put it on.

“How did they seem?”

He knows I mean Herbert and my mother. “’Bout the same.”

“I worry about their health.”

He sighs. “Not much you can do. My father-in-law…” he begins, but stops.

I realize he almost never talks about his home life. “What?”

“He’s got cancer.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I say.

“And no insurance.”

“You’ve got to fix that,” I say, too quickly. He blinks hard. I try to squeeze his arm but he moves away. The gap is there between us again. Shit. Despite my efforts, despite my current lifestyle, I will always be an outsider, from “away.” It comes and goes, but, stupidly, there has always been that between us.

“How’s the season been?” I shout after a time.

“Not too bad,” he says. We have all the residents of the different islands to catch up on—who’s been ill, who’s had which problems, who’s renting what—so by the time we enter the bay at Bride Island we’ve reestablished our harmonious friendship. “Say hi to Debbie and the boys,” I say, when the dock is in sight.

He nods. “Okay.”

“We should get together sometime.” But we both know that won’t happen. I tell him we’re coming off island Monday morning.

“I’ll be seeing you tomorrow,” he tells me. “Your ma wanted half-a-dozen lobsters.”

Mother and Herbert plus Monnie and me is four. “A half dozen? Who else is coming?”

“Russ and his lovely bride, Miss Melanie.”

I hadn’t been sure my brother would come. “Oh ho. The newlyweds.”

“Well, it has been two years.”

“Yeah, and Russ’s third wedding.”

“You should try it again yourself,” Steven tells me, so quietly I almost can’t hear him.

I snort. “Look at me,” I say and give him what I think of as my most crazed, self- deprecating and hopefully winsome smile.

“I am.”

I honestly can’t read his expression. Does he care? I don’t flatter myself. And yet. The silence is awkward and with relief I notice we are almost at the island.

The dock grows steadily larger, the shore clearer until I can distinguish individual leaves and stones. Steven brings the boat in, throwing first the white floats along the side, then cutting the engine, sidling in, the boat smelling of fish and diesel fuel, the silence after the din of the engine almost hurting my ears. I leap off and hit the solid wood planks at the same time as Skippy. Steven hoists the bags to me. The air is decidedly sharper. Steven will have to hurry now, hurry home for his supper. Suppa. “Thanks,” I say, looking in his eyes to make sure we’re friends again. I kiss his cheek before I hustle Monroe off.

As Steven’s boat chugs away I breathe contentedly. I feel a momentary, purely private wash of happiness at being here again, and it’s captured in this sky, this crystalline clarity of light and chill and fresh everything. Even as I’m talking to Monroe, I’m absorbing the landscape around me, feeling it almost on my skin. It’s so intimately familiar, and yet wonderfully, beautifully strange: the dock just in from the point, the long spit of land, the islands in the distance; and then, up toward the house, through shady trees and rugosa roses, the path grooved in the tall grasses. Monroe burbles and chirps and points out all the things she remembers from past years. I look at my fine daughter, with her perfectly formed limbs and silky hair, her sweet little nose and clear eyes. My heart swells with gratitude. I refuse to think about the winter. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

From the publisher:

1. The novel begins during one of Monroe’s summer visits to Bride Island. Why is this visit different for Polly? Why do you think she decides at this time that she wants to have custody of her daughter? What in her life has changed? What in her life hasn’t changed? What do you think motivated her decision to finally seek custody?

2. Polly thought “marriage would be an end, a container. But it wasn’t a house I stepped into, it was only a gate I passed through” (p. 20). What does Polly mean by this? What were her expectations of marriage and motherhood? In what ways did her expectations fail her? In what ways did she, herself, fail?

3. Discuss the marriages in the book: Elena and Roger; Caitlin and Herbert; Dan and Chloe; and Russ and Melanie. Are all these relationships dysfunctional? Does Polly ever see a happy marriage? How do these relationships impact her own life and her own views on love?

4. When Polly is first tempted to kiss Steven, she thinks, “I remind myself that I have to be careful, that I need to protect Steven as much as myself” (p.47). Why does Polly need to be careful? In the end, is she careful? In what ways does she lead a careless life? In what ways does she try to protect herself and those she loves? Is she successful?

5. How does Polly view Chloe and Elena as mothers? How does she see her own mother? Do the other mothers whom she comes in contact with make her want to be a mother, or do they make her question her own abilities to be a good mother? Discuss the role of motherhood in this novel. How do the mothers in this novel help or hinder their children?

6. Polly ran away from her husband and small child. In what ways has she grown since then? In what ways is her life still out of control? Do you think her family creates more problems in her life, or do you think they want the best for her? In what ways do the Birdswells sabotage each other’s happiness? Why do you think this is?

7. How does death affect the Birdswell family? How does Herbert’s death affect them? Roger’s death? The deaths of their childhood? Why do they continue to be haunted by the ghosts of their past? In what ways does each of these deaths change them?

8. Discuss each of the Birdswell siblings. How do they grow throughout the novel? Do you think their relationships with one another improve? What factors contribute to this? How does life pull them apart and bring them together?

9. What do you think of Polly’s relationship with Colin? What was their relationship like when he was alive? Has it changed since he died? Do you think it’s possible that Colin let himself drown? Why or why not? In what ways does Collin’s death—and life—influence Polly’s life? Do you think she will ever let Colin go?

10. In what ways is Russ a destructive force in the Birdswell family? What do you think motivates him? How do his decisions affect them all? Caitlin tells Polly that she gave Russ the island because he needed it more than Polly. Do you think that’s true? How are Polly’s needs different Russ’s in respect to the island? Who do you think stands to gain more from its ownership?

11. How does Roger’s death serve as a reality-check for the entire Birdswell family? Do you think he committed suicide? Why?

12. Why do you think Dan agrees to go on the river trip with Polly? Discuss the river trip. What changes for both Polly and Dan during the trip? What do they learn about each other?

13. The portions of the novel that take place on Bride Island are written in present tense, while the rest of the novel is written in past tense. Why do you think that is? What is the effect of this device? In what way is Polly’s present life on the island?

14. How is Polly ultimately redeemed at the end of the novel? Were you satisfied with the arrangement she and Dan made in regards to Monroe’s visits? Do you think Polly is satisfied? Why or why not?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

A note from Alexandra to BookMovement members:

BRIDE ISLAND is about a woman, Polly, who does not trust herself as a mother, who believes in fact that her daughter would be better off without her. At the same time, she is fiercely, unequivocally devoted to a piece of land, Bride Island. The paradox of these two coexisting states of mind interested me—the idea of the “bad” or “un-maternal” mother who is yet a true steward of land. And when the island comes under threat of developers just as she decides to push for custody, Polly is forced to both confront her past and accept that some things can never truly be owned. BRIDE ISLAND is about love, motherhood, and the haunting and sometimes conflicting pulls of family and the places that shape us. Like most of my work it has a dark heart, but it also explores the redemptive possibilities of forgiveness.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "Easy read, however no depth to writing style"by Gail M. (see profile) 02/13/09

Our Book Club enjoyed reading the book - fairly easy and quick. However, lack of complexity in the writing style was problematic for some members.

Story was interesting- the author makes

... (read more)

  "Polly gives up her daughter due to drinking addiction so she has a better life then doubts her decision later on in life"by c p. (see profile) 08/26/08

I found this book to be rather depressing, but as far as a group discussion book, the book is a great choice. There are so many characters in one family but they are all interesting topics o... (read more)

  "book was fair"by kathleen p. (see profile) 08/25/08

book was fair. the middle of the book picked up and the ending was o.k. did not make a good discussion book.

  "Highly recommend"by LN T. (see profile) 07/30/08

Different sort of novel. Deals with some real, raw issues. Excellent fodder for discussion at our club. Some could relate, some could not, but everyone liked the flawed heroine.

  "excellent read"by ellen t. (see profile) 07/29/08

Good read. I enjoyed the characters--especially Polly. Very honest writing.

  "An Honest book"by Ellen t. (see profile) 07/29/08

At times, difficult to read because you want to just shake Polly and say "snap out of it"! But in the end, a very satisfying book

  "Well thought out novel"by E T. (see profile) 07/29/08

I really enjoyed this book. Polly, the main character, was a very real person, with some very real problems, but she learns to deal with them in the end. "Grows up" so to speak. A thoughtful book.

  "A raw, truthful book about about a woman struggling to make right"by Donna P. (see profile) 07/12/08

A really good book. You can identify with the main character and her trying to fix the mistakes in her life. She struggles with her dysfunctional family and the death of her brother.

  "wonderful narration, characters are well established, good length"by Leslie H. (see profile) 11/15/07

Our book club suffered through a couple duds the last few months, but this one has lifted my spirits. Enders creates a world where things are not "black and white." Characters who I thought were type-casted... (read more)

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