Enigmas in stone

Two women, 60 years apart, on Easter Island

It's comforting to imagine that aliens placed those inscrutable statues on Easter Island. Such a theory protects us from the more haunting implications about human nature. The tiny island, 2,300 miles west of Chile, was settled around 400 A.D. Its early inhabitants - with or without extraterrestrial assistance - carved more than 600 giant faces from volcanic rock and then dragged them to the shore. Some weigh almost 90 tons.

In her gorgeous debut novel, "Easter Island," Jennifer Vanderbes has attempted something equally ambitious, and her success is almost as baffling. How can an unknown writer tell three stories across 60 years, balancing romance, botany, feminism, archeology, military history, academic politics, and civil rights for the handicapped in just 300 pages? The press release refers to a degree from Yale and a stint at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, but I suspect alien intervention.

The novel shifts chapter by chapter between the stories of two women, while also tracing the doomed retreat of German Vice Adm. Graf von Spee at the opening of World War I. Any summary risks making this all look like a tangle of unrelated events, but Vanderbes displays Mother Nature's genius at spinning a web of life.

In 1913, Elsa Pendleton has lost both her parents and finds herself the guardian of her 19-year-old sister, Alice, who is mentally handicapped. Their father was an enlightened academic who spent his life (and his fortune) fighting to defend the freedom of "feeble-minded" people at a time when England was moving toward forced sterilization and institutionalization.

Without him or any money of her own, Elsa consents to a marriage of convenience with an archeologist, a much older colleague of her father. The arrangement is peculiar, but apparently agreeable to all involved. Elsa's husband treats her like a beloved niece, never presuming on her affection or expecting any marital intimacy.

Their honeymoon, with Alice in tow, is an expedition to Easter Island, under a commission from the Royal Geographical Society. Though it's a 12-month voyage to a speck in the Pacific Ocean without any modern conveniences, Elsa is thrilled with the prospect of adventure, which has the added benefit of removing her sister from their increasingly intolerant homeland.

Exploring this unusual sibling relationship takes Vanderbes into a region more foreign to most readers than anything they'd find on Easter Island. The intensely private, beautifully intimate moments captured here between these sisters are, in fact, like nothing I've read anywhere else. But Vanderbes perceives this unique relationship with the kind of insight that eventually sheds light on the evolution and design of all relationships.

Elsa has grown up in a state of "constant vigilance" to maintain her sister's safety. Alice is a funny, frustrating, unpredictable young woman, but Elsa's sense of duty "has produced in her a seriousness that makes others uneasy" and blinded her to the costs of trying to shield Alice from any unhappiness. When Elsa realizes that the exotic world they've sailed into offers myriad opportunities for danger, she believes "she doesn't even deserve to sleep." In the emotional calculus Elsa has maintained since childhood, her sister can never be blamed for anything; Elsa must turn all frustration, all disappointment, all anger on herself.

The other story takes place in the 1970s and involves a young woman named Greer Faraday, who comes to the island to study pollen dispersal. The scientists already stationed on the island have mistakenly expected her world-famous husband, but for Greer the trip is a chance to recover from the shock of his death and make sense of their brief, troubled marriage.

As a female graduate student in an all-male department at Michigan University, Greer had to work through the benefits and liabilities stemming from her relationship with a hotshot professor. Her classmates' assumption that she was being favored academically eroded the value of her work, and her husband's appropriation of her research corroded the foundation of their marriage.

Vanderbes takes shortcuts with this modern story that sometimes make it less satisfying than the older one, but again she's brilliant at portraying emotional ambiguities.

For very different reasons, both Elsa and Greer married scientists they barely knew. They enjoyed real benefits from those unions, but both women are eventually forced to confront their own naiveté and the crimes hidden in their marriages. For Elsa that confrontation is unimaginably tragic, but the modern story that eventually merges with it provides just the right note of affirmation.

Among the many pleasures of this novel are the scientific issues that Vanderbes laces so gracefully through these lives. Both heroines share an interest in Charles Darwin and (though they don't realize it) the same copy of his groundbreaking book.

Elsa's archeological study is particularly fascinating, and eventually downright suspenseful. In less deft hands, Greer's investigation of the island's pollen could have sounded like an investigation of the island's pollen, but Vanderbes keeps the science always accessible and thematically relevant.

"Easter Island" makes a strong case that no man, woman, plant, or moment is an island. By its lovely conclusion, those enigmatic statues seem as familiar and poignant as the private monuments of grief we erect in our own minds. Here's a good reminder that they, too, can be abandoned.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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