When I was thirty, I doubt I even noticed sixteen-year-old boys. I’m pretty sure they were as nonexistent to me as my job as Bruce Springsteen’s back-up singer. I wanted a mature MAN, not a kid who hadn’t started shaving yet.
What if I was stranded on a tropical island, Castaway styles, with a sixteen-year-old? What if he turns nineteen, I’m thirty-three, and we’re still on that island? What if we survive all manner of plane crashes, sharks, bats, jelly fish, rats, near starvation and broken collar bones? What if all we have is each other? Could that teenager become my lover?
This is the premise of Tracey Garvis Graves’ amazingly enjoyable On the Island. Anna Emerson has been hired by T.J. Callahan’s parents to be his tutor. T.J. is in remission from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, having missed quite a bit of school. His parents want to spend the summer in the Maldives, and the plan is for Anna to catch T.J. up with his schooling. The two must travel separately from T.J.’s parents, and their trip does not go smoothly. When the pilot of their small plane has a heart attack, they crash land on an uninhabited island. Anna and T.J. must now rely on each other to survive.
I had long since abandoned the notion that I held any kind of rank over T.J. I may have been older and had more life experience, but that didn’t matter on the island. We took each day as it came, addressing and solving problems together.
This business-like partnership slowly evolves into something more. At least it was slow on Anna’s part; T.J. is attracted to her from the start. In fact, that’s one of the things I enjoyed about this book: as it alternates between Anna’s and T.J.’s points of view, T.J. is written realistically. He’s a horny teenage boy; he checks out Anna’s body, gets aroused, and thinks about sex all the time. But he waits for her to come around, and when she does, that’s also presented realistically. Anna knows that she’s experiencing more than tutor-student feelings for him. His post-chemo hair grows in, and he gets taller and more physically mature. When they do have sex for the first time, it isn’t so much an act of capitulation on her part as a realization that she likes him, he likes her, they want each other, and if being stranded on this island has taught her anything, it’s the pointlessness of postponing happiness.
Their relationship is not without its problems and challenges, though, and again, they are presented realistically. Anna is in her thirties and wants a family. T.J. is a teenager who is supposed to be doing keg stands and playing beer pong. But “Fantasy Island” effects change on the two of them, bringing them closer emotionally and physically.
The sexy times are hot; not Christian Grey or Gideon Cross hot, but hot. There aren’t many of them, either, so what Graves has makes sense. If there was scene after scene of Anna and T.J. rocking the headboard – or the coconut tree, as it were – their coupling would be prurient, rather than nicely hot.
Hey, it’s summer time. And for those of us who occasionally get tired of the older, experienced man with the younger, nubile girl, On the Island provides a terrific change of pace.