Oh, Isla. Where to begin?
I’m predicting that I will be in the minority of reviewers who don’t come out of this reading experience singing Isla’s praises. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it. Isla is a thoroughly enjoyable book, written with the same easy flow that make Anna and Lola such accessible reads. This book has been three long years in the making, and in that time, more readers have come to discover Perkins’ debut and sophomore novels and have fallen in love with her innate ability to place readers squarely in her characters’ shoes. For good reason; when I first discovered Perkins’ work, for a few blissful hours, I was Anna and Lola. Particularly with regard to Anna, her experiences were related so organically that I never once felt like I was being told a story. Perkins wasn’t feeding us lines designed to make us swoon; she was tapping into every secret thought that we have ever had about our own love lives.
Isla is a good story, but unfortunately for me, I never lost myself to it like I have with Perkins’ previous works. Overall, I found Isla to be an engaging protagonist, and I admire Perkins’ decision to let her remain somewhat of a wallflower. Anna and Lola both have such vivid passions and personalities that, with Isla, it was nice to see the shy girl get the spotlight for a change. I related to Isla’s struggles regarding her future. I had those same conversations at many points during my late high school years and early twenties, and I still struggle with the fact that, while I tend to get obsessive about my interests, they never develop into anything that I could truly consider a passion or a calling or anything that allows me to identify myself. I would have loved to delve further into Isla’s doubts, in fact, but unfortunately we never get that chance. What we get instead is a whirlwind, quixotic romance that could have been just as fulfilling as Anna’s and Lola’s respective tales if it had been fleshed out a bit more.
I understand that Perkins wanted to give us a different type of love story. In Anna, we got a slow-burn friendship-turned-more; in Lola, a resurrected romance. Isla offers up something suspiciously close to instalove, though thankfully she avoids delving into those waters full-force. Isla has yearned for Josh for years, and I believe we are to assume that Josh has reciprocated those feelings, despite the fact that they have barely spoken to each other. Once they do strike up a tentative friendship, though, there is enough genuine connection between them that I bought the relationship, even if it moved at a rather quick pace. Still, while reading, I couldn’t help but shake my head at the plausibility (and validity) of falling in love in a month. For those of us jaded by having already weathered our teenage and twenties years away, Isla’s urgent, awe-struck voice felt too naïve at times. I believe that love can be found and experienced at any age, and that a relationship is of no less value simply for being formed during the tumult of youth. I don’t discount anyone’s ability to love, but I do take issue when I’m told, repeatedly, of that love when I don’t see the groundwork for its formation. During the few conversations that Isla and Josh have, I was sold on their chemistry, but there simply wasn’t enough. I’d all but written off the inevitable falling-out halfway through the book as the obvious consequence of two young people who are mistaking lust for love, or at least the desire for love for the real thing.
And then, on my way to work this morning, I remembered something; I once fell in love with a boy after having dated him for four weeks, and we have now been happily together for six years. That being said, I am intimately privy to the conversations and glances and touches that comprised our discovery of each other during those four weeks leading up to the big romantic revelation. And I’m sure that Perkins intended for her readers to assume a similar getting-to-know-you period for Isla and Josh; she just didn’t let us see it. And to be honest, I’m not quite sure what filled up the majority of the book’s narrative, because it felt as if this book was at once entirely focused on the romance between Isla and Josh (to the detriment of fleshing out secondary characters, as was done so well in her first two books) and yet, having finished their story, I’m still not entirely sure who either of them is. I don’t know why Josh was drawn to Isla from the beginning, or what made him fall in love with her now. Inadvertent breast-gazing and strolls through bookstores are cute fillers, but there wasn’t one single conversation between the two that allowed me to see how a connection fueled by outward attraction could be sustained in the long run. What’s more disappointing, while Perkins focuses so heavily on the supposed attraction between these two, none of their interactions gave me butterflies like the ones I got during the movie theater scene in Anna, or when Anna calls St. Claire Etienne for the first time, or when Cricket helps Lola fix her hair. The spark was so close to being there, but it never ignited for me.
I think that, had Perkins expanded this story out past her main characters a bit more to focus on the other people in Isla’s life, or even on Isla herself, I could have forgiven what I see as a somewhat overworked romance story. I get the sense that Perkins spent a bit too much time worrying about getting all of the pieces to fit together neatly, and the aftermath of serious editing is that the story lost some of its heart. I like Isla and Josh, but until I am more fully convinced of why they love each other, I simply can’t love them as a couple.
That being said, Isla is far from a bad novel and is perfectly delightful in its own right. Perhaps if Perkins hadn’t had two truly remarkable titles leading up to this one, a lack of comparison would have made me more inclined to love this book.
PS- I truly hope that we one day get an alternate narration of one particular scene that occurs toward the end of the book. You’ll know when you get to it.