Island Girl takes readers on a trip to Canada and the Toronto Islands, a small clustering of islands just off shore in Lake Ontario. In her novel rich with island history, Simmons introduces the Donaldson women, a group of females full of strength and slightly ornery.
Ruby Donaldson's family has resided on the Toronto Islands for decades; her grandmother first lived in the small house on Ward Island, a house passed down through the generations of females ever since. Ruby, always strong-willed and fiercely independent, has recently been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's, a disease with little hope for a cure. Although she has been on a bevy of medication for some time, the medicine seems to be waning in its attack on her symptoms. Convinced that she will soon lose the ability to care for herself, she attempts to reconcile the long-standing rift between herself and her oldest daughter Liz.
In the process of telling the story of Ruby's attempt to mend her relationship with Liz, Simmons also tells the story of Grace, Ruby's younger daughter -- and the reason Ruby and Liz have been at odds for so long.
Although in another (less-skilled) author's hands a story involving Alzheimer's could become melancholy, sappy, and overly emotional, Simmons wields her pen with grace and aplomb. The result is a carefully drawn story mixed with island history of the best sort (think your grandmother's stories rather than your boring high school history teacher).
Simmons' characters are well-defined, with strong voices that she expertly uses to narrate the story. As a result of the constantly switching narrators, Simmons draws our attention to subtle differences in point-of-view and questions the validity of each character's feelings. By using all three Donaldson women as narrators, Simmons forces readers to question which details are fact and which are opinion, as the story often seems to be influenced heavily by feeling and by which woman is relating the tale.
I found myself frequently using my internet research skills to look up Toronto Islands history as I read Island Girl. I was pleasantly surprised to find information about all of the little tidbits of island history that Simmons includes in the novel. From Babe Ruth's first homerun to the ongoing battle between island residents and airport supporters, Simmons pens a tale of fiction heavily steeped in factual island history -- a combination I absolutely love. This novel made me wish to travel to Toronto and walk along the islands' beaches, ride a ferry, and enjoy a trip on one of the swan boats featured prominently in the novel. One day perhaps I'll make it on a bookish tour of Canada that includes Anne Shirley's Prince Edward Island (a dream since I was a little girl) as well as the Toronto Islands -- and perhaps Tempe Brennan's haunts in Montreal, too.