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 rebuilding her life.
Now Polly desperately wants seven-old Monroe back, and is determined to prove—to herself especially—that she's a stable and loving mother. But can she move forward when her family and friends won't let her forget the past? As Polly tries to claim ownership of what she loves, and discovers that some things can never truly be owned, she must again ask herself what she's willing to relinquish.
Alexandra Enders has published short stories in BOMB magazine, Hunger Mountain, and Critical Quarterly, and was a finalist for the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative with Toni Morrison. She has an MFA in fiction from Vermont College, and has written articles for Martha Stuart Living, Elle, Food & Wine, and Art & Antiques. She lives in New York and Maine with her husband and daughter. This is her first novel.
Q. Do you have an island like Bride Island in your life?
A. No, but I've always been fascinated by islands, both as geographical entity and as metaphor. The area of Maine I'm writing about, the Penobscot Bay, is rich with small and large islands, many of which had thriving communities in the nineteenth century. One summer I was invited by friends to stay on the small island they visited every year. We took the mail boat out and though we were there only about a day and a half, everything about the experience enchanted me—the remoteness, the lack of electricity, the very basic weather-beaten house with its old furnishings and blue-and-white china. It seemed a setting ripe with possibility.
Q. What was your inspiration for the Birdswell Family?
A. Polly and Monroe came to me first as an image of a woman and child sitting in a car. They became part of a story I was writing called "Places and Things," a terrible title but I was interested in someone who felt she could care for land and fix things but could not be a good mother to her child. My own daughter was about five at the time and I was in graduate school, trying to figure out how to be a good mother, how to give my daughter the kind of attention and time I wanted to give her, and how to be a serious writer, which also demanded a huge commitment and passion. It wasn't that the two occupations were in conflict, but more that they shared a similar energy and each was greedy. Then too, I adored my daughter so much and wondered why anyone would leave a child. Because I'm the kind of writer who likes to answer questions that frighten me, or that I don't understand, I tried to figure it out. As I pursued the question of Polly's leaving Monroe, I realized that it wasn't just a short story, but a novel, and that Polly's problems needed to be seen in the larger context of her family.
Novels come in patches. First a brother arrived, then a sister, then another brother and another (he proved to be too much and I had to let him go). Initially the novel was told in different points of view, with each sibling having a chance to justify his or her choices. But I felt I was writing three (or four) different novels and finally took a chance on telling only Polly's story.
To me, the phenomenon of Wasp Rot is fascinating: old families with a lineage, perhaps wealthy at one point, that have fallen on harder times, that haven't been able to adapt, that still have a sense of themselves and their importance in the world, and how hard it can be to break free of that, to really live in the present. Alcoholism does tend to run in these families and is in fact a family disease. And as a structural element, it seemed a good way to get at some of the harmful patterns that move through families.
Q. What writers and novels inspired you while you were writing this novel?
A. Two extremely helpful books were Summer Island: Penobscot Country by the photographer Eliot Porter and Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp.
Eliot Porter wrote Summer Island in 1966 about growing up spending summers on Great Spruce Head Island, which is close to where I imagined Bride Island to be. Eliot describes daily life on the island, which in the early twentieth century was quite a production, and writes lovingly of its natural beauty and wildlife. The book is illustrated with his own photographs.
Drinking: A Love Story is an extraordinary memoir about being an alcoholic. Caroline Knapp, a journalist who died of lung cancer at the age of forty-two, writes movingly and eloquently about her family and her struggle to understand and to end a twenty-year addiction to alcohol.
Over the years I was working on Bride Island there were books that meant a great deal to me but could not be said to be direct influences: Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus, Elizabeth Strout's Amy and Isabelle, Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows. I have always loved the novels of Sue Miller and Barbara Pym, the short stories of Alice Munro and William Trevor, the poetry of W. B. Yeats and Elizabeth Bishop. There was something about the cadence of Ruth Stone's poem "Romance" that I found inspiring the summer I read it over and over. And of course Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. I'm revising a novel about a scientist and his wife and how they cope with the death of their baby, a topic that falls into the category of "questions I'm afraid of." And I've started a new book about two sisters and their marriages. For me, writing is a slow, unpredictable process, and sometimes I don't even know what I'm writing about until well into a project. But each novel is its own world with its own psychology and demands. And there are technical challenges too. Where Bride Island was relatively compact in terms of time—it takes place over a year and in twelve chapters, one for every month more or less—in the novel about the sisters, I'm interested in a much longer view. How a close relationship changes over time, and what perceptions are available at what point in one's life, can drive a novel as much as plot or other narrative devices.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- How does Roger's death serve as a reality-check for the entire Birdswell family? Do you think he committed suicide? Why?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?