Island Girl, by Lynda Simmons.
If I were a teenager, this would be a coming-of-age story. But having celebrated my fifty-fifth birthday yesterday -- complete with champagne, cake, and more candles than anyone wants to see in one place -- I suppose this is more a coming-of-old-age story. The tale of a woman well aware that the best is no longer yet to come. - from Island Girl, page 1 -
Ruby Donaldson has just been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's Disease and knows one thing: she must put her life in order before the disease robs her of her ability to do so. Living on a unique island close to Toronto, Ruby runs her own hair styling salon while keeping an eye on her adult daughter, Grace, who is developmentally delayed. Ruby's life hasn't been all smooth sailing -- she's gone through her fair share of men and is estranged from her eldest daughter, Liz, who has dumped her career as an attorney and turned to alcohol to pass the time. Ruby deals with Alzheimer's Disease (which she nicknames "Big Al") the way she has dealt with everything in her life -- head on, with no holds barred, and a fierce determination to take control.
Narrated in alternating points of view between Ruby, Grace and Liz, Island Girl reveals a family in crisis with its fair share of heartache and dysfunction. Liz is the most unlikable of the characters -- a woman who hides inside a bottle and strikes out with anger at anyone trying to reach her. It is not until late in the novel that the reader begins to gain some understanding of Liz's rage toward her mother and herself. Grace is vulnerable and innocent, a child in a woman's body who loves birds and wishes her mother would see her abilities more than her disabilities. Ruby is the character that unites all the other characters in the book with her fiery personality and can-do attitude. But she is not without her faults. The very thing that gives her strength also drives away the people who love her the most.
Island Girl examines how a devastating diagnosis impacts a family. It also looks at how the medical field responds to patients as Ruby begins to decline and lose her autonomy. Perhaps the strongest theme of the novel is about the loss of autonomy once a person enters the medical system. At what point do we allow a person to determine their own path? When do outsiders need to step in to safeguard a person once their ability to care for themselves begins to slip? Should a person's need for self-determination outstrip the need to keep them safe? These questions are at the core of Lynda Simmon's book.
Although I appreciated the insight into the characters which is gained through alternating viewpoints, there were moments when I would have preferred to stay firmly entrenched in Ruby's mind and voice. This novel is, in every sense, Ruby's story -- and it was her voice I longed to listen to. Simmons introduces parallel stories of the other characters in her novel which slowed the pace and did not engage me nearly as much as Ruby's steady descent into her disease.
The ending to this novel will be a conversation generator in book clubs. Simmons resolves the story in a way that will stir up a little controversy, I think. And that is all I will say about it ... if you want to know more, you have to read the book!
Island Girl will appeal to readers who like books about family relationships and who want to gain insight into the perspective of an individual dealing with Alzheimer's Disease.
Three stars out of five.
Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".