In an afterward to Steven Raichlen’s love story that takes place on our own beloved little island off the big Island, locally known as Chappy, the author frets, in a witty way, that he might have presented the small, water-enveloped moraine as too much of a Shangri-la: What if too many readers are persuaded to move there, and Chappaquiddickers suddenly lose their much-cherished peace and quiet?
This is not a delusional concern: It’s long been known that every year, after hundreds of thousands of people watch the Rose Bowl, played every January 1 in sunny California, thousands of frozen folks in the East and the Midwest decide to pull up stakes and head west.
However, Mr. Raichlen need not worry. And that’s not to say that many people won’t read Island Apart (Forge Books, $24.99), and be totally engaged by it, the writing, the characters and the scenery. He need not concern himself because Chappy’s geography will always discourage the following groups of people: Those who like to party and stay out late, and thus could never suffer a ferry schedule that shuts the little island down past midnight (in the summer; 11:15 p.m. in the off-season); people who favor markets of any sort (there does exist a single tiny store, the only retail outlet permitted on Chappy, but its hours are, shall we say, flexible); people who can’t deal with their cell phones being out of commission, and who’ll also require a special satellite hookup if they’re partial to television; people who haven’t the patience to wait in line for the spindly three-car ferry, a jam-up that can sometimes delay a motorist by a couple of hours in the summertime.
This eliminates most of humanity: Mr. Raichlen, who has a house on Chappy and resides the rest of the year in Coconut Grove, Fla., can rest assured that his jolly-fun book will not prove the ruin of his summer habitat.
The ideal resident for Chappaquiddick would be a modern version of Henry David Thoreau, a nature-lover who is happiest with his own company. There is arguably in every Chappy householder an inner hermit.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Mr. Raichlen’s central male character is a recluse; a mystery man, a scary-looking and peculiar-acting loner. This is an oddball who converses with others so seldom, his voice rasps as he tries to form words. He lives so far down a twisted, hidden footpath in the wilds of Cape Pogue that no one could find him without a GPS device attached to his raggedy jacket.
In the author’s words, “His silvery hair tumbled past his shoulders. A beard as wavy as eelgrass plunged halfway down his chest. The man wore a faded flannel shirt — even in summer — and his jeans had been mended so often, you couldn’t make out where the denim ended and the patches began. . . As for the color of his eyes, no one could tell: he always kept them downcast.”
What demons have driven the hermit to this isolated condition? And did these demons emanate from the real world or some twisted wires in his own psyche?
On the other side of the romantic arc of the novel is Claire Doheney, writer and big-time editor for an elite boutique publisher in Manhattan. She has arrived on Chappy to seek her own seclusion in the seaside trophy home of friends. Claire will devote her time to editing a book on the far out Austrian-American psychoanalyst of the mid-20th century, Wilhelm Reich. (Yes, he of the notorious orgone box, invented to treat patients with its compressed cosmic energy.)
There’s a deeper matter for Claire to process and from which she hopes to heal: She has lately completed chemotherapy for a diagnosis of breast cancer. And, as if that were not enough discouragement in her life, she has recently divorced an unemployed college professor who was dastardly enough to leave her the minute she received her diagnosis. (Her dire news is countered with his: that he has fallen in love with another woman, so goodbye.)
Mr. Raichlen gives us, in the hermit and Claire, two deeply sympathetic people who could not be less interested in the mating dance at this point in their lives. And yet they meet, in an unexpectedly dramatic and lyrical and frankly cinematic circumstance (I’m seeing Scarlett Johansson and George Clooney in dreadlocks for the movie). And slowly, their quotidian lives loop around one another like two highly dissimilar vines.
Steven Raichlen is a household name in America, and particularly in American kitchens or, still more particularly, outside where folks cluster around the grill. A journalist, a TV host and a writer of 29 books, his three blockbusters are The Barbecue Bible, How to Grill, and Planet Barbecue. Every month, hundreds of thousands of people log on to his Web site at barbecuebible.com
A reader coming to Mr. Raichlen’s first novel might expect descriptive narrative to include a platter of pork chops marinating in a cajun sauce before being tossed on the barbie. On the contrary, the grill master, for Island Apart, has steeped himself in the most sophisticated of cuisines. The hermit and Claire are both passionate foodies, as more and more of us seem to be becoming these days. Their flair for all things culinary draw them to one another, the way a normal American date involving pizza and a movie could never do, at least for these two meticulous eaters.
And both of them know their wines. A dinner at Claire’s home begins with a bottle of ’94 Crozes-Hermitage, followed later by a half-bottle of 1976 Château d’Yquem. The first course of the meal is scallops in a Provençal sauce of tomatoes and leeks “elevated by the unexpected refinement of crème fraiche and vermouth.” The dessert course the duo organizes together over the above-mentioned Château d’Yquem is sliced pears on a triangle of puff pastry, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, Armagnac, then dotted on the top with butter.
“The pear tarts emerged in a cloud of cinnamon-scented smoke, the pastry puffed and golden . . . The butter, sugar, Armagnac, and pear juices had cooked to a bubbling dark thick caramel. Claire topped the hot tarts with dollops of cold zabaglione . . . Nailed it!, Claire thought, smiling. The tart left the hermit a different kind of speechless.”
Island Apart is one of those books that pushes you into a chair and keeps you there for the space of a dreamy afternoon, preferably a gray and drizzly afternoon, with reservations in place for an über-foodie restaurant. The novel is guaranteed to make you hungry, and few of us are up to the elaborate kitchen-prep maneuvers of the two protagonists.
You definitely won’t want to finish Island Apart when you’re stuck on Chappy with nothing in the fridge and the ferry has shut down for its dinner-time hiatus of a given May evening.