What to Read on the Bathroom Floor at 1 a.m. Through a Vale of Tears


Part of me wants to save my space, time, and energy recommending books of which you might not already have heard. The Light Between Oceans, which has been on the NYT Bestseller List since last summer, hardly needs my help. But sometimes (and not often), I read a book that is ... just that good. So good, in fact, that I can think of no better words than really stupid ones like "so good" to describe it. That means the book left me wordless. Dumbfounded. Bowled over.

I have three kids so I really need sleep. I love to read, have since forever, but I don't have the luxury of maintaining my mental health and staying up all hours with my nose in a book. The two are incompatible. So I read more slowly than I might like. Usually. So just how did I end up, on the third night of reading M. L. Stedman's debut novel, awake well after midnight, on the bathroom floor, flipping pages like a maniac? 

Oh and did I mention the crying part? I mean I don't cry much when I read books. Maybe I've read too many. But this one ... it's kind of hard to finish a book you really want to read when you can't see the pages very well. I had to read in the bathroom so all my noisemaking wouldn't wake up my bedmate. I think I used up at least half a roll of toilet paper and gave myself an eensy headache by the time I closed The Light Between Oceans for the last time.

Oh, and a caveat, because I don't want you to not read this book because who wants to cry, right? These are the kind of tears you cry because something is ... Just. That. Beautiful. Heart-rending. Not depressing, but moving, breathtaking, stunning. Sooooo gooooood. (See, I gave up again and went back to stupid words.) In this way, The Light Between Oceans reminds me of one of my all-time most-beautiful favorites, Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain.

So what is this book about? It only requires a quick overview to know that Stedman has created a novel about a great moral dilemma, placing her characters in a situation in which no matter what path they choose, someone will be hurt. Twenty-something Tom Sherbourne returns from the Great War in the early 1920s to his native Australia. He's suffered immense loss, both as a child, and now as a veteran. Deeply scarred, Tom meets his foil in Isabel, a nineteen-year-old girl who is outspoken and spirited, and through whose love Tom is essentially brought back to life. 

Tom is assigned to work keeping a lighthouse on remote Janus Island, about 100 miles off the west coast of Australia. Despite reservations about her suitability for life on an uninhabited piece of land with returns to the mainland only every few years, Tom settles his bride on Janus. Isabel thrives in this atmosphere of wild, rugged beauty, but over the next six years, she and Tom suffer catastrophic loss -- Isabel has two miscarriages and delivers a stillborn son seven months into her third pregnancy. Isabel's grief is so keen that, in an effort to support his beloved wife, Tom continues the modus operandi of turning away from his own intense pain. 

Just a short time after the loss of Isabel's third pregnancy, the event occurs upon which the entire novel pivots: a small boat washes ashore on the beach and in it are a dead man and a screaming infant, alongside a woman's cardigan. In a matter of hours Isabel, having taken the infant to her breast nearly inadvertently, argues that the baby's mother must have drowned. In an effort to relieve Isabel's grief, Tom reluctantly buries the man and the couple decide to raise the child, whom Isabel names Lucy, as their own. 

Despite Tom's intense internal reservations over the morality of the choice he and Isabel have made, two nearly idyllic years pass as the new parents are opened to that love which is like no other -- parenthood. Then the time comes for their pass to the mainland, and Isabel's parents, who have lost her two brothers to the Western Front, meet the grandchild who offers a chance at happiness after many years of mourning.

In a heart-stopping scene during their mainland visit, Tom and Isabel learn that Lucy's mother is alive and suffering the extreme grief inherent in losing her husband and child. Isabel convinces Tom that they must return to Janus with Lucy, arguing that it is two years too late to do anything else. 

For Tom there is no right answer -- Lucy should return to her biological mother, but how can he take from Isabel, who will never bear a child, the daughter that has in essence brought her back to life? Tom is tormented by both his conscience and his love for his wife. As time passes it becomes harder and harder to undo what has been done. And when the game is finally up, lives are torn asunder.

The Light Between Oceans is potent, haunting, suspenseful, extraordinary. It asks deep moral questions while remaining imminently readable. It breaks your heart in the most exquisite manner. Run and read it as soon as you can. But clear out your calendar, for once you pick it up, you will be unable to break its spell until the last page is turned. And don't forget to pick up some extra toilet paper.