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Shay is surprised when her husband Senna declares his intention to build her a spectacular dream house on an idyllic beach in the tropical island nation of Madagascar. But the Red Island House casts a spell from the moment she sees it, and before she knows it Shay has become the somewhat reluctant mistress of a sprawling household, caught between her privileged American upb Shay is surprised when her husband Senna declares his intention to build her a spectacular dream house on an idyllic beach in the tropical island nation of Madagascar. But the Red Island House casts a spell from the moment she sees it, and before she knows it Shay has become the somewhat reluctant mistress of a sprawling household, caught between her privileged American upbringing and education, and her connection to the continent of her ancestors. At first, she’s content to be an observer of the passionate affairs and fierce ambitions and rivalries around her. But as she and her husband raise children and establish their own rituals on the island, Shay finds herself drawn ever deeper into an extraordinary place with its own laws and logic, a provocative paradise full of magic and myth whose fraught colonial legacy continues to reverberate. Soon the collision of cultures comes right to Shay’s door, forcing her to make a life-altering decision. A sweeping novel about marriage and loyalty, identity and heritage, fate and freedom, Red Island House reintroduces readers to a powerhouse literary voice and an extravagantly lush, enchanted world.


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Shay is surprised when her husband Senna declares his intention to build her a spectacular dream house on an idyllic beach in the tropical island nation of Madagascar. But the Red Island House casts a spell from the moment she sees it, and before she knows it Shay has become the somewhat reluctant mistress of a sprawling household, caught between her privileged American upb Shay is surprised when her husband Senna declares his intention to build her a spectacular dream house on an idyllic beach in the tropical island nation of Madagascar. But the Red Island House casts a spell from the moment she sees it, and before she knows it Shay has become the somewhat reluctant mistress of a sprawling household, caught between her privileged American upbringing and education, and her connection to the continent of her ancestors. At first, she’s content to be an observer of the passionate affairs and fierce ambitions and rivalries around her. But as she and her husband raise children and establish their own rituals on the island, Shay finds herself drawn ever deeper into an extraordinary place with its own laws and logic, a provocative paradise full of magic and myth whose fraught colonial legacy continues to reverberate. Soon the collision of cultures comes right to Shay’s door, forcing her to make a life-altering decision. A sweeping novel about marriage and loyalty, identity and heritage, fate and freedom, Red Island House reintroduces readers to a powerhouse literary voice and an extravagantly lush, enchanted world.

30 review for Red Island House

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jenny Lawson

    Beautifully written. It seems less of a novel and more of a collection of short stories (all with the same central character) that explore race, class, othering, death, betrayal and a million other topics. It was a slower sort of read and I needed my dictionary more than I'd like to admit but it was worth it. Beautifully written. It seems less of a novel and more of a collection of short stories (all with the same central character) that explore race, class, othering, death, betrayal and a million other topics. It was a slower sort of read and I needed my dictionary more than I'd like to admit but it was worth it.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Sue

    Now and then I come upon a novel so artfully written, so evocative of a place, and so packed with ideas that I want to continue thinking about it rather than move on to another book. Andrea Lee’s The Red Island House is one of those books. Set in Madagascar and revolving around the dream vacation home built by Senna, a wealthy Italian businessman, for himself and his new African American wife, a literature professor and translator named Shay, Red Island House is comprised of a series of short sto Now and then I come upon a novel so artfully written, so evocative of a place, and so packed with ideas that I want to continue thinking about it rather than move on to another book. Andrea Lee’s The Red Island House is one of those books. Set in Madagascar and revolving around the dream vacation home built by Senna, a wealthy Italian businessman, for himself and his new African American wife, a literature professor and translator named Shay, Red Island House is comprised of a series of short stories occurring over the years of the couple’s marriage. Time after time, they leave their busy Milan life behind to spend time on their beach estate in one of the world’s poorest countries. During an interview with New Yorker, Lee spoke of her novel’s unusual but highly successful structure: “I see the form as a private challenge, a sort of balancing act; each story must be satisfying on its own but also be a bead on a string that joins it with others.” Each of those beads on a string focuses on Shay’s encounters with the diverse people populating Madagascar and sparking her thoughts about social class, race, and neo-colonialism. As a wealthy black intellectual in a country where powerful whites have traditionally dominated poor, uneducated natives, she is caught between cultures and forced to ponder what she experiences personally and observes around her. In the opening story, “The Packet War,” newlywed Shay arrives at the house her husband insists he built for her but in which she has had no say. A stranger in a strange home and land, she continues to have no voice in the goings on, and a good relationship with her husband disintegrates. Senna had been warned about the need for, but refused to follow the custom of, throwing a housewarming party for the local natives, and ignoring local customs could result in evil curses. Only the native housekeeper, Bertine la Grande has a solution for Shay’s unhappiness, and it involves a clandestine visit to a village sorcerer. Readers who wonder about the story’s title, “The Packet War,” will understand by story’s end. The third story, “Blondes,” opens in a beauty shop as Shay undergoes a slow-paced pedicure and manicure. What seems like an unpromising beginning changes as Caroline la Blonde walks in the door. A beautiful black woman with a reputation for captivating wealthy European men, Caroline has come to have her blond sewn-in hair extensions removed, her own hair trimmed and redyed to match, and the extensions reattached. As Shay’s feet soak in a plastic pan, her mind wanders back to her California childhood, to her encounters with blond classmates, to the various ways she styled her own black curly head over the years, and the significance of being blond in Madagascar. She thinks of Helle, an elderly blond German widow, who frequently visited the red island house and whom Shay viewed as a remnant of the past, a white woman forever trapped in the colonialist mentality. She watches Caroline, the “blond” black woman, who has made her fortune from European men, and observes her domineering interaction with the cowed Frenchman who comes to pay the beauty shop and to help her into the car awaiting outside. These are only a brief look at two of the beads that make up Andrea Lee’s insightful novel. An American permanently living in Italy, Lee and her husband have frequently traveled to Madagascar where she has experienced first-hand the types of people and situations she brings to life through her words—the natives, the outsiders, and the friction between them. In her New Yorker interview, she remarks, “I long ago dubbed this phenomenon “paradise twisted,” and I chose to illustrate it in a series of stories, each of which sheds a different light on the people and place.” My thanks to NetGalley for an advance reader copy of Andrea Lee’s newest book.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Beverly

    This mesmerizing book opens as Shay Gilliam, a Black American intellectual married to Senna a tycoon Italian businessman, and unwilling mistress of the Red House, a sprawling big house and household in Madagascar, is following her Malagasy housekeeper to a conjurer to lift an evil spell on her house. This quietly powerful book, told through a series of incisive and vividly written vignettes/anecdotes, presents a narrative arch spanning a twenty year-period exploring cultural and identity collisi This mesmerizing book opens as Shay Gilliam, a Black American intellectual married to Senna a tycoon Italian businessman, and unwilling mistress of the Red House, a sprawling big house and household in Madagascar, is following her Malagasy housekeeper to a conjurer to lift an evil spell on her house. This quietly powerful book, told through a series of incisive and vividly written vignettes/anecdotes, presents a narrative arch spanning a twenty year-period exploring cultural and identity collisions between and within the Indigenous population and the Europeans in this neocolonial society. While Shay is not always present in the vignettes, she is always hovering as an observer, as she tries to reconcile the rifts in her marriage, her identity as being a “mistress” to a “plantation” house, the cost of being an outsider and the higher cost of belonging to the privileged class and the history as a Black woman in Africa. I appreciated all the wonderful historical and cultural details of the Malagasy world, and how the people live with dignity as they and their country become a fetish exotic adventure destination for others. This is an eloquent and elegant introspective read as the topics of identity expectations and being the life you want, how to enjoy your success yet still honoring your ancestry, and how survival is knowing your worth and the making the best with what you have to offer are presented from a fresh perspective on cultural collisions and the dualities and multiplicities that exist within us.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Carole Bell

    A lush, lyrical, and dense saga about place, love, culture and identity with a touch of magical realism.... Lee’s striking writing is layered and thick with evocative descriptions of people, landscapes, feelings and foreboding. Sociological and psychological, it’s prose with the abstract feel of poetry. My Review of Red Island House for @bookpage: https://bookpage.com/reviews/26081-an... A lush, lyrical, and dense saga about place, love, culture and identity with a touch of magical realism.... Lee’s striking writing is layered and thick with evocative descriptions of people, landscapes, feelings and foreboding. Sociological and psychological, it’s prose with the abstract feel of poetry. My Review of Red Island House for @bookpage: https://bookpage.com/reviews/26081-an...

  5. 4 out of 5

    Melissa

    *This book was received as an advanced reader's copy from NetGalley. Red Island House is one of the more unusual books I've read this year. Not in the sense of dystopia, invention, or paranormal; but rather, that it takes you to a setting that is not one that I've encountered in a lot of books. It takes you to Madagascar, by way of an unusual set of characters. Shay is a professor from America who falls in love with an Italian several years her senior. Wealthy, when she meets him he is in the midd *This book was received as an advanced reader's copy from NetGalley. Red Island House is one of the more unusual books I've read this year. Not in the sense of dystopia, invention, or paranormal; but rather, that it takes you to a setting that is not one that I've encountered in a lot of books. It takes you to Madagascar, by way of an unusual set of characters. Shay is a professor from America who falls in love with an Italian several years her senior. Wealthy, when she meets him he is in the middle of building his dream house on some property in Madagascar, and she soon finds herself the lady of the house. This causes internal conflict, and outward conflict as Shay herself is African American and has to adjust with interacting with the people of color around her, but from a standpoint that she views as almost colonial or hearkening back to plantations. This confusion, combined with a tumultuous relationship, gives her a unique story across this backdrop that spans decades. I had a hard time relating with Shay. An independent, intelligent woman in the beginning, I won't say that she loses that sense; but with the troubles in her marriage I do wonder at her interactions. Maybe it's the globe-setter type of culture that comes with her marriage being in Italy and the vacationing in other places that takes it out of context for me. But, and this will be a spoiler, (view spoiler)[I just can't see her as a character that would accept infidelity. And yet she does, so many times through this book. (hide spoiler)] Senna, her husband, I'm never fond of, but I'm not attracted to the brash type of which he is. But really, this is Shay's story, not Senna's, so he's more of an afterthought anyway. There are plenty of other characters; some likable, some comedic, some with stories that take Shay out of her comfort zone, and they're all pretty important to the story in their own way, even if you don't take a liking to them. While I enjoyed the plot and the meandering it sometimes took; the timeline was a bit rougher for me. We meandered over the first few years of their marriage and then wham, 5 years later, wham, 10 years later; I would have liked to not have as large of gaps and a more cohesive storyline. I think all of the themes were important; Shay's struggle with identity and how she should act on the island, the various trials and tribulations, the uncomfort and acceptableness of the sex-work on the island (which no doubt reflects a lot of tourist areas in the world with the need for money causing people to enter a line of work they might not have otherwise). Overall, for me this book was important in its message, but I wouldn't call it enjoyable. The characters struggles and joys caused a lot of empathy, but it was a hard read. Review by M. Reynard 2020

  6. 5 out of 5

    Celeste Miller

    What a beautifully written book! I read this slowly, savoring the descriptive language and the evocation of the tropical island Naratrany. It is almost a series of short stories, though Shay and the Red House are main characters throughout. Major themes are race, class, neo-colonialism, and sex work in places of poverty. The author makes clear in the acknowledgments that this book is about Madagascar from a foreigner's eye. Shay, the main character, is an African American professor who married a What a beautifully written book! I read this slowly, savoring the descriptive language and the evocation of the tropical island Naratrany. It is almost a series of short stories, though Shay and the Red House are main characters throughout. Major themes are race, class, neo-colonialism, and sex work in places of poverty. The author makes clear in the acknowledgments that this book is about Madagascar from a foreigner's eye. Shay, the main character, is an African American professor who married an Italian businessman 20 years her senior, and who builds the Red House for himself and for her early in their marriage. Shay then constantly struggles with the in between-ness of being a Black woman who is the "lady of the house" in Africa where a very colonial lifestyle is still in full swing. The book comes full circle by the end and left me pondering for quite some time. I also had to look up a few words which NEVER happens so I enjoyed that! The author lives in Italy and I got hints of Ferrante style writing throughout the book as well, though the author is American. I loved the book and hope that readers who enjoy amazing prose find this and enjoy it.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Cassidy Washburn

    Red Island House is gorgeously written; a journey of discovery that is as seductive as it is evocative. Taking place over the course of 20 years, the story follows Shay as she grapples with her new responsibilities as “Lady of the Red House,” and her own identity. And as the events reach a crescendo, you will be left breathless from this provocative novel. Once you pick it up, I promise you, you won’t be able to stop reading - I read it in a day!

  8. 5 out of 5

    switterbug (Betsey)

    This isn’t a one size fits all novel. It isn’t for everyone, but it hit a sweet spot for me. It was unfamiliar, foreign, colorful, erotic, and otherworldly at times. The protagonist is a Black American professor, Shay, who married an older Italian entrepreneur, Senna. On his urging, they buy a vacation villa in a small (fictional) beach village, Naratrany, in Madagascar, as newlyweds in the latter part of the 90s. They are both multilingual (but don’t speak the island languages), and live in Mil This isn’t a one size fits all novel. It isn’t for everyone, but it hit a sweet spot for me. It was unfamiliar, foreign, colorful, erotic, and otherworldly at times. The protagonist is a Black American professor, Shay, who married an older Italian entrepreneur, Senna. On his urging, they buy a vacation villa in a small (fictional) beach village, Naratrany, in Madagascar, as newlyweds in the latter part of the 90s. They are both multilingual (but don’t speak the island languages), and live in Milan, but return to the villa during two month-long vacations annually. The novel covers over two decades in their life, especially at their villa, Red House. Before I talk about the book, I’ll mention the structure. Each chapter has an intriguing title, my favorite being Elephants’ Graveyard. At times, I felt that I was reading a series of vignettes, although there was always Shay as a through line and it followed a mostly linear flow. But some of the chapters could also be lifted from the book and made into it’s own very short story, so I wasn’t surprised when I found out that at least one was actually just that, in the New Yorker. But it didn’t diminish the story for me. Shay feels awkward at first, being a “mistress” of a house with the Black staff subordinated to her—much connection in her head with slavery. She does make a good friend in Bertine the head housekeeper, who notices that Shay and Senna fight a lot (they only squabble in Madagascar, not in Milan), and Bertine steps in to help Shay. This is when it gets exotic and speaks to the animism beliefs of the island inhabitants. Shay attends a ceremony that had me holding my breath a few times. Over the decades, Bertine remains Shay’s closest confidante. Senna is often on fishing expeditions or business ventures when they are in Naratrany. He’s got libertine tendencies—he and Shay are very different individuals. They have two children, who travel with them during the vacations, and grow up with native Naratranians, ex-pats, and Europeans and others who came to the island. The children aren’t a prime ingredient of the narrative; mostly it is about Shay and her perspective, experiences, and relationship with Senna and the way she interacts with her staff and others on the island, especially Bertine, my second favorite character. Madagascar is a complex place with layers of class structure and social sensibilities. And sex between islanders and people of other cultures plays a large part— part of survival, too. Often, the story questions its own morality and perspective, which is done with ease in third-person limited POV. No narrator broadcasts or tells you what to think or judge about the characters--only as it pertains to Shay’s own learning curve and evolving comprehension. Moreover, it is not a traditional arc storyline—you just have to follow it wherever it leads you. Andrea Lee is both erudite and allusive in her prose, often including snippets of French or Italian (some on the island speak French). There are also superbly incorporated references to songs, poems, and literature from all over the world. I felt smarter as I progressed. :) Mostly, I enjoyed the unique assortment of individuals and concerns of the various characters that come to Red House, which is the focal point of the novel. Lee’s sense of place is scintillating, sensual, gripping, as are her figures of speech and descriptions. “Madagascar has its own fabulously complex identity…Building on such terrain has consequences: attachments root and expand in unexpected corners, the way that a tough network of sea grapes can cover a whole beach.” If you are up for a strange and fascinating journey, with a vivid, chimerical, spirit-infused culture, and a reading experience that bends beyond the usual borders, I recommend you give this book a go. The final page, in its action, may have been a bit twee, but I understood it in a more sublime sense, too. Themes of heritage, family, acceptance, love, and betrayal are addressed--juicy to the core, but nuanced, and dream-like at its edges. Thank you to the publishers at Scribner for sending me a copy.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Eule Luftschloss

    trigger warning (view spoiler)[ drug abuse, child neglect, miscarriage, n-word in colloquial use, misogyny, ableism, racism, results of colonialism, mention of rape, mention of suicide, lynching, mental illness (hide spoiler)] When a woman of colour who is a college professor marries a rich Italian guy, she becomes the mistress of the red island house: A newly-build manor in Madagaskar which has blood-red floors, hence the name. This book is something between a novel and a short story collection, trigger warning (view spoiler)[ drug abuse, child neglect, miscarriage, n-word in colloquial use, misogyny, ableism, racism, results of colonialism, mention of rape, mention of suicide, lynching, mental illness (hide spoiler)] When a woman of colour who is a college professor marries a rich Italian guy, she becomes the mistress of the red island house: A newly-build manor in Madagaskar which has blood-red floors, hence the name. This book is something between a novel and a short story collection, each chapter being a new experience to be had, and not necessarily in chronological order, but set at the same plae with the same people. Our protagonist is in a weird place. She's the mistress of this manor on a small island which until recently has made money through a sugar mill which is now closed, an island where you see the remains of colonialism wherever you look. And she's aware of it, due to being black, tries to not be the stupid foreigner who exploits the local people. In addition, she is not here because she set out thinking "oh a trip to the other end of the world would be nice", she married a guy who was building a holiday home. For her, being here is kinda accidental. Once there, she quickly falls in love with the place and the people. The first story is about a house keeper, a greek guy who thinks he is the lord over all, and has to be taught a lesson. Shay, who has befriended the head of the personal, gets to see what led me to add the tag magical realism: They fight fire with fire, in this case spell with spell and charm with charm. Regardless of how absurd it feels to Shay - and to me - to witness this, she treats all she meets with respect, which is how I like my books. Just because it's weird does not mean it's bad. This book is both slow to read and slow in plot, because it's more characterdriven and the font is tiny. I enjoyed my time there. It's probably more a once in a lifetime book than something I would re-read, but I might look up other works by the author. It certainly helped that this is the only form of tropical vacation I can afford, and at the moment the only kind of travel possible at all. The arc was provided by the publisher.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Whitney Lawton

    I really was excited about this book. The storyline was intriguing and I was looking forward to a novel based in Madagascar, as I have limited knowledge of this country. I also was fascinated by the main character being a black American, living in Italy (and married to an Italian) and her experience as such spending her holidays in Africa. However I just had a hard time getting through this one. The storyline wasn't cohesive and the pacing just felt really slow. I also didn't feel a great connec I really was excited about this book. The storyline was intriguing and I was looking forward to a novel based in Madagascar, as I have limited knowledge of this country. I also was fascinated by the main character being a black American, living in Italy (and married to an Italian) and her experience as such spending her holidays in Africa. However I just had a hard time getting through this one. The storyline wasn't cohesive and the pacing just felt really slow. I also didn't feel a great connection to Shay as the main character. Her actions didn't seem believable based on her background in too many parts of this book. Overall I'm just really disappointed as I felt like this story had so much potential and could be a powerful one to tell. Thank you to Simon & Schuster /Edelweiss Plus for the ARC of this book.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Shawna

    Thanks to Edelweiss for the ARC. I enjoyed this book. There is a main character in Shay and she discusses race, and colonization, but in reality that is not what this book is about. This book is about the Red House, and the people who come and go through the town. The book is set up to where each character(s) get a chapter, with certain character - the Senna family, Betrice, to name some wander through to observe the town and people. Some reviews here seem disappointed because the book was not wh Thanks to Edelweiss for the ARC. I enjoyed this book. There is a main character in Shay and she discusses race, and colonization, but in reality that is not what this book is about. This book is about the Red House, and the people who come and go through the town. The book is set up to where each character(s) get a chapter, with certain character - the Senna family, Betrice, to name some wander through to observe the town and people. Some reviews here seem disappointed because the book was not what it was marketed as, but they agree that it is very well written and crafted. I hope that others can look past expectations and just read the book for what it is - a richly woven story of the goings on around a vacation home, with small reflections on race and class.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Christine

    Shay was a rootless outsider, whose life of privilege carried with its blindness, pride, and scattershot ignorance, and Bertine was the one who belonged, who saw, and who brought order by naming things for what they were. This book is about a Black woman living in a Red Island House built in Madagascar by her wealthy Italian husband. In the Red Island House, Shay's journey as a wealthy landowner in Madagascar has her realizing Madagascar's social issues and her situation's irony. First off, thi Shay was a rootless outsider, whose life of privilege carried with its blindness, pride, and scattershot ignorance, and Bertine was the one who belonged, who saw, and who brought order by naming things for what they were. This book is about a Black woman living in a Red Island House built in Madagascar by her wealthy Italian husband. In the Red Island House, Shay's journey as a wealthy landowner in Madagascar has her realizing Madagascar's social issues and her situation's irony. First off, this book is well written, and I loved the descriptive sentences. There are so much information and detail in one sentence that it the book's strength and weakness. With the book being so detailed, it leads to a tedious read. The reader has to pay close attention; otherwise, they lose essential details. In The Rivals story, one of the main characters is being discussed by the townspeople with the passage below. We get this description: "Besides her intelligence, her undeniable energy, and a reputed genius for sex, her greatest talent is one she shares with many resourceful wives and mistresses: an inconspicuous but relentless persistence, the ability to bide her time, to cling without being obvious, and never to show offense." The passage describes one person, and it is so information that the reader could easily get lost in the information. Reading this passage does give a better image of this character in her manner and looks. This is one of my favorite passages because once the character is introduced, we get a basic description of the woman that does not signify the reason men lust for this woman. Still, with this passage, we get the full picture of how a 'common' woman could get a wealthy married man to pay for her lifestyle. One of the main issues with this book is the lack of focus. I believed this book to focus on the house itself, which in the beginning is true. The first story deals with the construction of the Red Island House, leading to the battle of Shay and an evil man Kristos titled The Packet War. This story was the best, especially with the supernatural aspect and Madagascar history. However, some stories did not pertain to the Red Island House or the owners, Shay and Senna. A number of these stories deal with a character passed by the Red Island House or visited the Red Island House once. These people and their stories are also written off as insignificant as Madagascar's people forget these "tragic" people and their "cautionary tale." A fascinating read is Sister Shadow, as the character Bertine dies. This death leads Shay to rethink her life and the Red Island House. It is no secret to the island that the Red Island House runs as a plantation. Bertine, the Red Island House's main organizer, has a close relationship with Shay, the owner of the Red House. After her death, Shay realizes that she is no better than the 1950 Southern housewife with an African American maid. This story was the most fascinating since Shay, an African American, owning a house run like a plantation realizing the complexity of her situation. Overall, suppose you like well-written books with a few stories that delve into Madagascar's specific social issues, predominately with tourism and its affliction on the Madagascar natives. In that case, this is the book for you. Thanks to NetGalley and Scribner for allowing me to read this e-book in exchange for an honest review.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Wagner

    I admit I was drawn to this novel for its setting - the idea of Madagascar as a topical idyll is seductive and parts of this book challenge that conception while others lean into the perceived otherness of the island nation. Overall, it makes for an interesting novel, but I was frustrated by the structure, which felt more like a series of short stories rather than a novel.

  14. 4 out of 5

    lisa

    I was thrilled to receive an ARC of this book because I have never read a book that is set in Madagascar, and I knew very little about the country itself. I eagerly read the first chapter, which took me on a journey of a young Black American woman learning the mysteries of her new house in Madagascar. The chapter hinted at the promise of the rest of the story -- how does an American deal with a country of such unspoken mystery and class/colonization issues, while she is still learning how to nav I was thrilled to receive an ARC of this book because I have never read a book that is set in Madagascar, and I knew very little about the country itself. I eagerly read the first chapter, which took me on a journey of a young Black American woman learning the mysteries of her new house in Madagascar. The chapter hinted at the promise of the rest of the story -- how does an American deal with a country of such unspoken mystery and class/colonization issues, while she is still learning how to navigate these things in her own country, and with her own marriage to a white European? I was excited to read the rest of the book, but I didn't realize that this is not really a novel. It's a series of stories and vignettes as observed by Shay, the American woman who lives with her husband Senna in Milan, and vacations in Madagascar. It took me forever to get through this book. It was well written, but it wasn't interesting in the slightest, which is too bad. The stories that Shay relays, often to other foreign friends, are generally not that interesting. There isn't much about the characters, there isn't much dialogue. Everything is told through Shay's knowledge, who is very much aware of the fact that she is a tourist in the country she calls home for a few months of the year. It sounds like that awareness would be interesting, but it makes every character and every situation seem as though it's probably not happening the way Shay thinks it is happening. Or that behind the scenes, in places where Shay does not venture, there is a very different story happening. And because I wasn't hearing much directly from the characters themselves, I didn't much care about what Shay thought about the situation she was able to be completely separate from. The only time my attention was even a little bit caught was toward the end of the book when the story shifts slightly to Bertine, the housekeeper of the Red House. And I think the only reason why I didn't feel like falling asleep while reading this chapter is because Bertine is such a presence in the first chapter of this book, the one I was so intrigued by. I wish the rest of the book had lived up to that first chapter. I would have loved to hear more about Shay's life in Italy, and how her children were affected by growing up in Italy and in Madagascar. I would have loved to hear more about her relationship to Senna. I would have loved to read about how she navigated her life as a foreigner in Italy, and as a foreigner in a country where she looks more like the people, but is so obviously not one of them. The book brushes against these issues, but doesn't dive into them, making this story sit on the surface of something that could be great, but is just dull. One note though: the author does list some writers at the end of the book that are finally being translated into English. I would be interested in reading their works, and I'm glad to know their names. If you already read French, then these writers are already available to you.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Melissa

    "There are countries you visit that lay hold of you and don't let go..." I have a soft spot for immersive literary fiction, especially when it has a heavy global influence. Introduce me to the things that are unique and beautiful in another culture; give me space to ruminate on important social themes; and top it off with an enchantingly-detailed atmosphere that makes me feel like I'm actually there, and it's sure to be a hit for me. "Madagascar has its own fabulously complex identity, and is not "There are countries you visit that lay hold of you and don't let go..." I have a soft spot for immersive literary fiction, especially when it has a heavy global influence. Introduce me to the things that are unique and beautiful in another culture; give me space to ruminate on important social themes; and top it off with an enchantingly-detailed atmosphere that makes me feel like I'm actually there, and it's sure to be a hit for me. "Madagascar has its own fabulously complex identity, and is not to be taken lightly." Enter Red Island House. Set in a oceanside village of Madagascar, Andrea Lee masterfully wields her literary palette to paint you right into the lush island landscape. I could close my eyes and picture exactly the crashing indigo waves rolling over coral beaches; the bamboo huts nestled among rice paddies; the cane fields rustling in the ocean breeze. "Mystery lives under this moon." The story follows Shay, a Black American professor living abroad. Shay is poised, kind, well-educated, multi-lingual, and highly intellectual; her husband Senna is her opposite in every way. He is Italian, several years her senior, and very wealthy, with a bold, brash, arrogant personality. They spend long stretches of time each year at The Red House, their plantation-style vacation home in Madagascar. "If you want to leave him, you'll know the right time. You can't leave Madagascar, though. Not after all these years." Red Island House chronicles Shay's life, relationships, and experiences in Madagascar over the course of two decades, as she wrestles with the discomfort of being a Black plantation mistress, hurts in her marriage, and the loss of a dear friend. "In this country, whatever happens close to you - under your roof, say - becomes part of you, though you may not realize it at the time. Admittedly, the story progresses slowly, through series of rather disjointed "sections" (that read more like short stories than actual novel chapters). I struggled to stay engaged, and to connect with Shay as deeply as I connected with the setting. Despite some issues with pacing and character development, Lee does an admirable job of addressing themes like privilege, colonialism, race, marriage, and betrayal. A strong 4-star read for lovers of dense, culturally-rich literary fiction! "Light and darkness, like wealth and poverty, like foreigner and native-born, are indisseverably joined to each other." —— A huge thank-you to Andrea Lee, Scribner, and NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review! —— Follow @letteredlibrary on Instagram!

  16. 5 out of 5

    Terri

    ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ stars. I couldn’t have loved this book more, although (no spoilers) it broke my heart. The story follows a young couple, - Shay, an African-American scholar, and Senna, her wealthy Italian entrepreneurial husband, - as they build and periodically vacation in an extravagant villa and property in the unspoiled paradise of the African isle of Madagascar. The author has a gorgeous command of language, and within the first few pages, I was instantly transported to a vivid and exotic land, ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ stars. I couldn’t have loved this book more, although (no spoilers) it broke my heart. The story follows a young couple, - Shay, an African-American scholar, and Senna, her wealthy Italian entrepreneurial husband, - as they build and periodically vacation in an extravagant villa and property in the unspoiled paradise of the African isle of Madagascar. The author has a gorgeous command of language, and within the first few pages, I was instantly transported to a vivid and exotic land, where: 🖊” in the light soaked stillness of the hottest noontime hour, mongrel dogs lie flat as puddles in patches of shade”. 🖊” the land formation is dazzlingly, virginally green, as if it is the first time that color has been used on earth.” 🖊”the long curve of empty coral beach, is white and perfect as a fresh slice of apple” 🖋”(visitors) are dizzied by the infinite possibilities of using First World money in a Third World country, one of the poorest on earth. 🖋”the first caress of tropical air like an infant’s hand on the face” It doesn’t take too long for complex and interesting themes to begin to emerge. The novel spans decades, with each chapter feeling like a self-contained short story, introducing us to new and beautifully rendered characters whose lives, loves, losses and adventures, feel less and less strange the more we become absorbed deep into the fabric of this book and the all-encompassing pull of the magical Madagascar setting. Gradually it becomes clear that this is a novel about power, about entitlement, about rich sojourners, taking over (or so they believe), through the mastery and exploitation of new territories, leveraging whomever and whatever opportunities present themselves. An age-old theme. However, as the story plays out through the lives of the protagonists Shay and Senna, it becomes clear that rather than simply rolling over and allowing dominance- homelands that are mired in history, in the deep-rootedness, culture, and connection to the land experienced by all their native peoples, rise up in unexpected ways to have a profound and inescapable effect over the lives of all involved. Most definitely including the interlopers. This is a brilliant book that I will think about for a long while. A big thank you to NetGalley; the publisher, Simon and Schuster Canada; and the author, Andrea Lee for an advance review copy of this book. All thoughts presented are my own. This book will be published March 23, 2021.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Elyse Walters

    Madagascar is an island country in the Indian Ocean just east of Africa. It’s the fourth largest island in the world. It’s a biodiversity hot spot; over 90% of it’s wildlife it’s found nowhere else on earth. The culture, people, (Malagasy people), and place sounds so vibrant. The stories-vignettes-in “Red Island House”, by Andrea Lee were dazzling...and ‘interesting’..... ...the psychological relationships were punctilious... ...the imperfect characters were captivating.... ... the political and soci Madagascar is an island country in the Indian Ocean just east of Africa. It’s the fourth largest island in the world. It’s a biodiversity hot spot; over 90% of it’s wildlife it’s found nowhere else on earth. The culture, people, (Malagasy people), and place sounds so vibrant. The stories-vignettes-in “Red Island House”, by Andrea Lee were dazzling...and ‘interesting’..... ...the psychological relationships were punctilious... ...the imperfect characters were captivating.... ... the political and sociological aspects between the ‘privileged’ and ‘not’ felt realistically daunting. ...the prose was elegant... ....the lush exquisite beach of stretched-out sand, imagining birds of paradise jungles of animals, the history of the pirates, little children playing, rum drinks, snorkeling, the salt water smells, and sunshine... Ha...’yep’ I’m ready for our two week 43rd anniversary vacation in Kauai this December! After this pandemic... anywhere but home sounds like a welcome change! But back to our story.... The beauty was overwhelmingly lovely to me...(loved it and felt it)... not just the architecture of the land.... (poverty… vs. the wealthy which punches our souls).. > a vital contrast fitting with the totality of the storytelling.... but the intimate mystery, romance, arguing, infidelity, a special friendship, and the very complicated look at our human differences. We meet Shay, an African American professor. She falls in love and marries an older wealthy Italian named Senna. They met each other at a wedding in Italy. Both have been married before. They live in Milan and take take summer oceanside vacations — bringing their two children — to the villa that Senna built on the island of Madagascar.... a small island of Naratrany. Shay becomes the mistress of the Red House - an uncomfortable role. She’s black - the natives are black. Her housekeeper is black: Bertine (a favorite character), whom she and Shay developed a special friendship with, is a pure delight to get to know. ...The storytelling is from Shay’s perspective — an interesting independent woman -but allows ( understandably to me, but hurtful too), her often schmuck of a husband to rule-like-king. ...the structure of Lee’s blending stories are unique ... dealing with some heavy themes —racism, colonialism, and exploitation... as well personal marital complicated relationship themes. .... But .....it’s so beautifully written and engaging... I LOVED IT!! 🦜🍂🏝 A slim-gem read. 🐚

  18. 5 out of 5

    Terri

    ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ stars. I couldn’t have loved this book more, although (no spoilers) it broke my heart. The story follows a young couple, - Shay, an African-American scholar, and Senna, her wealthy Italian entrepreneurial husband, - as they build and periodically vacation in an extravagant villa and property in the unspoiled paradise of the African isle of Madagascar. The author has a gorgeous command of language, and within the first few pages, I was instantly transported to a vivid and exotic land, ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ stars. I couldn’t have loved this book more, although (no spoilers) it broke my heart. The story follows a young couple, - Shay, an African-American scholar, and Senna, her wealthy Italian entrepreneurial husband, - as they build and periodically vacation in an extravagant villa and property in the unspoiled paradise of the African isle of Madagascar. The author has a gorgeous command of language, and within the first few pages, I was instantly transported to a vivid and exotic land, where: 🖊” in the light soaked stillness of the hottest noontime hour, mongrel dogs lie flat as puddles in patches of shade”. 🖊” the land formation is dazzlingly, virginally green, as if it is the first time that color has been used on earth.” 🖊”the long curve of empty coral beach, is white and perfect as a fresh slice of apple” 🖋”(visitors) are dizzied by the infinite possibilities of using First World money in a Third World country, one of the poorest on earth. 🖋”the first caress of tropical air like an infant’s hand on the face” It doesn’t take too long for complex and interesting themes to begin to emerge. The novel spans decades, with each chapter feeling like a self-contained short story, introducing us to new and beautifully rendered characters whose lives, loves, losses and adventures, feel less and less strange the more we become absorbed deep into the fabric of this book and the all-encompassing pull of the magical Madagascar setting. Gradually it becomes clear that this is a novel about power, about entitlement, about rich sojourners, taking over (or so they believe), through the mastery and exploitation of new territories, leveraging whomever and whatever opportunities present themselves. An age-old theme. However, as the story plays out through the lives of the protagonists Shay and Senna, it becomes clear that rather than simply rolling over and allowing dominance- homelands that are mired in history, in the deep-rootedness, culture, and connection to the land experienced by all their native peoples, rise up in unexpected ways to have a profound and inescapable effect over the lives of all involved. Most definitely including the interlopers. This is a brilliant book that I will think about for a long while. A big thank you to NetGalley; the publisher, Simon and Schuster Canada; and the author, Andrea Lee for an advance review copy of this book. All thoughts presented are my own.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Wendy

    I'm so thankful that I got the opportunity to read this book set in the beautiful, distant Madagascar while I'm in lockdown. Red Island House is a unique portrayal of marriage, migration, race, colonialism and sex, This novel tells the story of Shay, an African American professor married to a wealthy Italian Senna, who announces that he is building a dream estate in Madagascar where he would like to move their family. So the two live in Madagascar, trying to stay married and bring up their childr I'm so thankful that I got the opportunity to read this book set in the beautiful, distant Madagascar while I'm in lockdown. Red Island House is a unique portrayal of marriage, migration, race, colonialism and sex, This novel tells the story of Shay, an African American professor married to a wealthy Italian Senna, who announces that he is building a dream estate in Madagascar where he would like to move their family. So the two live in Madagascar, trying to stay married and bring up their children, while nothing is easy - especially for Shay, who is the main focus of this novel. As an African American woman, she moves to a country where everyone else is Black like her, but it's not an equal relationship because she struggles with feeling the colonial undertones of her situation. In addition, Senna is cheating on her, undermining Shay's dignity and confidence in herself. But there is more to her story, and as she learns more about the culture of Madagascar, her two worlds collide. I was blown away by the character development in this novel. While I have little in common with Shay, I came to really care about her. On the other hand, Senna was totally unlikeable with his executive decisions, anti-feminist stuff and cheating. I suppose this made me love Shay even more and find her place in her new home - and her identity. Red Island House is a magical, unique and often heartbreaking novel perfect for readers who want to be challenged and surprised. The exploration of heritage and identity is familiar, yet it is put in a completely different setting. Finally, I have never been to Madagascar or know much about its culture, so I can't speak whether this book paints an accurate picture of the place. And as one of the first reviewers of this novel, I don't have a point of reference of those more familiar with it than me. I didn't find anything unlikely, but it would be nice of the Publisher to mention if/how the author did her research. I know, however, that Andrea Lee currently lives in Italy with her family, so this part of the plot definitely speaks for her personal experience. *Thank you to the Publisher for a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    Thank you to Scribner for an ARC to review! I'm coming in hot for this one. I see some lukewarm reception here on Goodreads concerning this title. And, I'll be the first to admit, I don't think this is the kind of book that a mainstream audience will find is in their taste. There are so many elements to dive into here. And while Shay is billed as the 'main character' of the story, readers will find that there are many other characters whose stories are told with just as much emotion. Sometimes th Thank you to Scribner for an ARC to review! I'm coming in hot for this one. I see some lukewarm reception here on Goodreads concerning this title. And, I'll be the first to admit, I don't think this is the kind of book that a mainstream audience will find is in their taste. There are so many elements to dive into here. And while Shay is billed as the 'main character' of the story, readers will find that there are many other characters whose stories are told with just as much emotion. Sometimes the timeline of events seemed hazy. Sometimes the writing about social issues seemed on the nose. Sometimes I was frustrated that the author repeated various facts multiple times. That's when I realized that Andrea Lee is a MASTER at her craft. This story is told from an outsiders' POV, and the reader feels like they're immersed in a tropical tale of magical realism. The facts and the lies and the fantasy meld together until they are so entwined that it's impossible to tell one from the other. And what is truth, really? Any person will have a version of truth that they feel strongly about, but another person can see the same events and see a different version of truth. Not only was this book highly evocative of place, as well as emotion, Andrea Lee utilizes so many different story methods that are effortless woven together. Some chapters focus on Shay, in a limited third person way. Then another chapter will be Shay telling a story of what happened to someone else - the conversation happening in the present plot but the story being related happened in the past. Then another story will be multiple chapters within one story, while anther story will simply be a short story. And yet all the different methods - all the different stories - add up to one: the Red Island House. This is really what the book is about. All those who enter under it are ensnared together in a fate that is connected. TL;DR - I was blown away. Read this book. Savor it. Don't rush it. Read each word. Don't skim. There are so many things to talk about in terms of motifs and themes that your book club discussion certainly won't be lacking!

  21. 5 out of 5

    Rally

    3 A couple who being of two different countries and upbringings live off and on in a house the rich husband had built for her. They go there with the idea they will just live there off and on with not much interactions or issues. They find it is not that easy though with the land being filled with myths, folklore and native people who have their own feelings and views of the outsiders. This house and area sees many outsiders come and go with differing intentions and views that effect both the nat 3 A couple who being of two different countries and upbringings live off and on in a house the rich husband had built for her. They go there with the idea they will just live there off and on with not much interactions or issues. They find it is not that easy though with the land being filled with myths, folklore and native people who have their own feelings and views of the outsiders. This house and area sees many outsiders come and go with differing intentions and views that effect both the native dwellers and the couple as well. It is a look at a place from foreiners point of view. It is also seen through the eyes of the wealthy and what is going on around them. The point of view is of a foreigner looking in and trying to grasp all the questions and happening from their culture and race and economic position as they venture back and forth in their marriage as well as where they live and the people around them. I felt the book brought up alot of issues but sometimes got a little confusing in that as well. I wish they would have given the meaning of some of the foreign words as well. The story goes from foreigner to foreigner and also on several natives. The magic is interwoven into the myth and folklore which was interesting even when i did not always understand it. I enjoyed reading the different stories but i lacked knowing any of the characters well and caring deeply. It also says she raises her kids there but there was very little about that. I think the book raised more questions about foreigners and their relation to natives and how places change due to them. Also questions on race and how their perspectives see things but not so much the diving into the characters to really know them and a plot that is easy and deep to get into. I liked the book and the points it brings up and the way it brings it around but i did not so much enjoy the messy backa nd forth of the places and lack of background and character development to make me care. Find more of my reviews at: www.rallyreviews.wordpress.com/blog-2/

  22. 5 out of 5

    Breanne Mc Ivor

    Confession time, as a reader, I've become a little tired of books that feature the clueless white boyfriend/ long-suffering Black girlfriend dynamic. Maybe I've just read too much of it. But Red Island House takes what has become a familiar trope in literature and does something new with it. 🌿 Shay is an African-American woman married to Senna, a white Italian man. But he and the other Italians are casually accepting of her race. I'm fact, her American-ness creates more conflict. 🌿 But, when Senna p Confession time, as a reader, I've become a little tired of books that feature the clueless white boyfriend/ long-suffering Black girlfriend dynamic. Maybe I've just read too much of it. But Red Island House takes what has become a familiar trope in literature and does something new with it. 🌿 Shay is an African-American woman married to Senna, a white Italian man. But he and the other Italians are casually accepting of her race. I'm fact, her American-ness creates more conflict. 🌿 But, when Senna purchases a plantation style dream house in Madagascar, Shay becomes the reluctant mistress of their vacation home and all who staff it. The people of Madagascar are used to white masters and mistresses, but a woman of colour in this position of power is an anomaly. 🌿 As a Black woman, Shay has had scant interest in Africa, except as 'a near-mythical motherland'. However, her many trips to Madagascar force her to confront the race and class dynamics of the island. Laws never seem to apply to wealthy whites. And the principal form of employment for young girls is prostitution, often with men twice and three times their age. This is the only way for these girls to earn the sort of money that can change their families' lives. 🌿 Madagascar is also a land where magic is heavy in the air. 'In Madagascar, everything speaks. Not just people and animals, but trees and rocks and individual islands and rice fields and lagoons and houses; and ancestral spirits, who offer opinions just like pushy relations.' Shay finds herself drawn more deeply into this spiritual world as she becomes closer to the country and its people. 🌿 This book reads like a series of interconnected short stories. We see Shay and Senna get older and have children as their marriage changes with time... and not necessarily for the better. Through the pages, the author offers a fresh take on race relations, class, culture and the long legacy of colonialism.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Danielle Seals

    3 -3.5 stars I was intrigued by the description of this book and was expecting a story of Madagascar’s people’s culture, beliefs, practices of magic and charm, etc. surrounding an Italian husband and African-American wife on building a luxurious vacation home on the island. Instead, I found the novel to be a collection of short stories surrounding around Shay and Senna. The author is talented in her words are lyrical and this is beautifully written, but so detailed that this is a slow, but impor 3 -3.5 stars I was intrigued by the description of this book and was expecting a story of Madagascar’s people’s culture, beliefs, practices of magic and charm, etc. surrounding an Italian husband and African-American wife on building a luxurious vacation home on the island. Instead, I found the novel to be a collection of short stories surrounding around Shay and Senna. The author is talented in her words are lyrical and this is beautifully written, but so detailed that this is a slow, but important read. I didn’t like the way the book jumps in time; a few months is fine but then 5-10 years pass. It is too much. Senna was an unlikable character from the beginning. He reminded me of an Italian relative I am not fond of. I didn’t think Shay’s character quite matched the strong personality and education she was given. While her high level of education is apparent, I just felt too much disjointed behavior. This may be my own misunderstanding or perhaps my own experience coming into play. I cannot divulge further without it being a spoiler. In the end, this is really a story about marriage and it’s ups and downs. I wanted more of the house, land and people. Bertine was my favorite character, and I enjoyed the parts with her in them the most. I felt more of an understanding of Madagascar through her as well as the colonialism and social class divide. This book is an important read and I would be interested to read more of the author’s writings, but I don’t think I could reread this. Thank you to NetGalley and Scribner for an Advanced Reader’s Copy. This review is my own.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Candice (Blackbiracialandbookish) Hale

    Set in the late 1990s, 𝙍𝙚𝙙 𝙄𝙨𝙡𝙖𝙣𝙙 𝙃𝙤𝙪𝙨𝙚, by Andrea Lee, is fashioned as a novel about foreigners in Madagascar. Over the span of 20 years, the novel tracks the movements, the travels, and the experiences of outsiders Shay and Senna as they obtrude on the island a few months out of the year. Lee’s writing is clearly infused with a mix of languages, identities,and cultures throughout the narrative and shows her talented range and lyrical abilities to attend to imagery and characters. 𝙍𝙚𝙙 𝙄𝙨𝙡𝙖𝙣𝙙 𝙃𝙤 Set in the late 1990s, 𝙍𝙚𝙙 𝙄𝙨𝙡𝙖𝙣𝙙 𝙃𝙤𝙪𝙨𝙚, by Andrea Lee, is fashioned as a novel about foreigners in Madagascar. Over the span of 20 years, the novel tracks the movements, the travels, and the experiences of outsiders Shay and Senna as they obtrude on the island a few months out of the year. Lee’s writing is clearly infused with a mix of languages, identities,and cultures throughout the narrative and shows her talented range and lyrical abilities to attend to imagery and characters. 𝙍𝙚𝙙 𝙄𝙨𝙡𝙖𝙣𝙙 𝙃𝙤𝙪𝙨𝙚 is centered around the fictive, eclectic Malagasy Island where readers can find a piece of paradise if they look close enough. I looked for a novel. This book works more like a collection of short stories about characters that enter the Red House. In the acknowledge section, Lee even states: “It began as a series of stories seen from different points of view and set in different parts of Madagascar, based on notes from my travels to the country over the last few decades.” It’s clear, Lee. It doesn’t function as a novel and it shows. I looked for a better read. I found that the summary offered for the book was misleading because the narrative did not fulfill its promise to provide “a provocative paradise full of magic and myth.” The book was a slow, dull read. Also, you’ll need an Italian and French dictionary to understand most words throughout. I almost DNFed the book. It only picked up near the end. I looked for a steady theme. Lee offers readers a multitude of concerns to have qualms with in a debut novel. It’s frankly just too much to digest. She is overwriting, too, and she doesn’t have to. Her talent is there. I’d definitely read a “real” novel by her in the future. If I had a physical copy of 𝙍𝙚𝙙 𝙄𝙨𝙡𝙖𝙣𝙙 𝙃𝙤𝙪𝙨𝙚, I’d definitely pass it on because it held no magic for me.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth ✨

    “You can’t just come into a country, build a big house, and take what you want. The country comes into you as well, into your blood. And so the land you set out to plunder ends by plundering you.” RED ISLAND HOUSE is a novel about a Black woman from the US, Shay, who marries an Italian man, Senna. He, in a mid-life fit of neocolonialism, built a house on an island off the northern tip of Madagascar. The book explores Shay’s experiences on the island and the way her identities and privilege, or la “You can’t just come into a country, build a big house, and take what you want. The country comes into you as well, into your blood. And so the land you set out to plunder ends by plundering you.” RED ISLAND HOUSE is a novel about a Black woman from the US, Shay, who marries an Italian man, Senna. He, in a mid-life fit of neocolonialism, built a house on an island off the northern tip of Madagascar. The book explores Shay’s experiences on the island and the way her identities and privilege, or lack thereof, shapes her interactions and relationships - as an American, as a wealthy foreigner, as a mixed-race Black woman, as the wife of a white man. Each chapter introduces us to more island residents and visitors, their many-layered identities, their sordid backstories, their naive or tempered dreams, and teases out the intricate power balances between a diverse set of characters. It’s a sharply observed book, written from an outsider’s voice (as Lee describes in her author’s note) yet intimately aware of the impact of foreigners on Madagascar, historically as traders and colonists and presently as tourists and neo-imperial capitalists. I like how Lee embraces the contradictions of Shay’s positionality; Shay has ancestors who were brought to the US as slaves from the continent of Africa, she is a Black woman who experiences racism in America, Italy, and on the island, and she is also a woman of privilege and wealth in Madagascar, a nation to which she has no historical connection, and she bumbles through cultural interactions as any foreign tourist might. I found it to be a deeply intersectional and thought-provoking novel. I appreciate that Lee acknowledges her outsider status and recommends indigenous Malagasy authors and poets to read in her author’s note. There were times when the tone of the novel felt problematic, fetishizing or infantilizing the native Malagasy, reveling in the mysterious “dark magic” of the island; it was hard for me to discern if this was intentional/ironic or otherwise. Lee’s writing is lush and beautiful, sometimes overly dense, sometimes almost academic in its word choice (I was googling a lot, and not just because of the sprinkled in Italian, French, and Malagasy words). She originally started writing a series of short stories which then came together as a novel around a cohesive place, house, and main character. You can feel that structure in the chapters; they work well as short stories. I think this book would have benefited from being packaged as a short story collection instead; while there’s consistency in the setting and some characters, each story works individually and doesn’t connect explicitly to the others. There’s a similar structure to the stories, where the first paragraph throws the reader into a scene, and then a detailed backstory is provided that deliciously amps up to the initially introduced climax, the aftermath a relaxing of the shoulders as the story winds to a close. There’s also not much character development that arcs throughout the book - even Shay, who is the portal into each story, demonstrates only minimal growth. A few standout chapters for me: the chapter “Noble Rot” is a story within a story, the kind of tale that draws you in with mystery, romance, and such atmosphere that you almost forget where you are. In the chapter “Blondes” Shay reflects on two blonde women - a Malagasy woman with expensive & imported blonde extensions and an older German woman who originally moved to the island as a colonist with her French husband - and the meaning and weight of blonde hair, in beauty, racism, colonialism, etc., both in Madagascar and in Shay’s home country. “The Packet War” and “Elephants’ Graveyard” were also favorites. Lee is a masterful storyteller. This book is imaginative, challenging, and consuming. It was a slower read for me, and I enjoyed sinking into the world Lee describes for us. I’d recommend it for lovers of atmospheric, thought-provoking reads. Thank you Scribner Books for the ARC!

  26. 4 out of 5

    Susan

    From her first tentative sensations of Madagascar as a newlywed vacation-villa co-owner (with her ostentatiously wealthy Italian businessman husband) through the decades to come, American-born African-American Studies professor Shay Senna works towards coming to terms with where she, as an African American reborn into the Motherland, as it were, fits into the complex, colorful, impassioned tapestry of life as it passionately plays out on the island in Ms. Lee's skillfully crafted novel. Erudite, From her first tentative sensations of Madagascar as a newlywed vacation-villa co-owner (with her ostentatiously wealthy Italian businessman husband) through the decades to come, American-born African-American Studies professor Shay Senna works towards coming to terms with where she, as an African American reborn into the Motherland, as it were, fits into the complex, colorful, impassioned tapestry of life as it passionately plays out on the island in Ms. Lee's skillfully crafted novel. Erudite, entitled, entranced: these prominent features of Shay's personality find voice in her introspective journey to finding community, even among such sharply color- and class-divided neighbors in Madagascar. Any preconceived definitions of "civilized" and "uncivilized" cannot help but come crashing down around her as she allows herself to be consumed by Madagascar as experienced by the native villagers she encounters as employer, vacationer, mother, and wife in her own privileged day-to-day world. From her domestic employees to her husband and a succession of his variously lusty and foolhardy pals, every so-called minor character is multidimensional here, and blessed with an intriguing backstory--at times deliciously fantastical. I particularly appreciated how Ms. Lee's professorial protagonist, Shay, references a pertinent collection of diverse African-American literary greats and their works over the course of her storytelling, drawing readers to discover these treasures on their own at a later date. There is a lot to recommend here.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Devon H

    This is hands down the weirdest book I've read so far in 2021. Lee's writing is colorful and descriptive, yet also at times feels deceptive, as though she's creating chaos in these characters lives where there is none, or vice versa. The times when she creates a feeling of calm when there are some seriously odd things happening is almost scarier. Shay spends most of the year in Italy, teaching as a professor the works of Black Americans, sharing a fraction of her life with them and trying to hel This is hands down the weirdest book I've read so far in 2021. Lee's writing is colorful and descriptive, yet also at times feels deceptive, as though she's creating chaos in these characters lives where there is none, or vice versa. The times when she creates a feeling of calm when there are some seriously odd things happening is almost scarier. Shay spends most of the year in Italy, teaching as a professor the works of Black Americans, sharing a fraction of her life with them and trying to help them understand how much pain persists in her home culture. The other third of the year is spent in Madagascar where her Italian husband Senna has built them a magnificent vacation home call the Red House. Her encounters on the island are never usual, and often something sinister feels at play. I enjoyed the unique writing style and pacing. I struggled with the plot, as each chapter reads like a small excerpt of a larger story, a piece of an interaction that readers are left trying to make sense of in the context of the larger book as a whole. The sinister feelings are often under the surface of each interaction, and I was constantly expecting something bad just around the corner. However, I struggled to find character development in the pages. Shay exhibits the most, but even still, it seemed more like she was drifting through each interaction as her marriage with Senna struggles along than that she was developing new insights from her time on the island. I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Kate Grant

    3.5/5 First Reads winner in exchange for an honest review. I have to say this novel was nothing like I was expecting. I thought this would have more of a Yellow Wallpaper/Mexican Gothic vibe to it, based on the description, but there wasn't much gothic imagery or mystery to the plot. This book is lyrically written and transports the reader straight to Madagascar. It is told through many small vignettes/short stories to bring the reader into the world of the house. I will say this writing style c 3.5/5 First Reads winner in exchange for an honest review. I have to say this novel was nothing like I was expecting. I thought this would have more of a Yellow Wallpaper/Mexican Gothic vibe to it, based on the description, but there wasn't much gothic imagery or mystery to the plot. This book is lyrically written and transports the reader straight to Madagascar. It is told through many small vignettes/short stories to bring the reader into the world of the house. I will say this writing style caused moments in the story to become disjointed. When reading, I prefer a more solid through line, so that's a me issue. Andrea Lee does an excellent job of demonstrating how interactions differ drastically between those that happen at the red house and those in the town. I preferred the moments that focus on the supporting characters more than Shay. I found the secondary characters to be fascinating and what really propelled me to continue reading the story. Bertine was my favorite of these characters. The ways culture and race were dealt with were done extremely well. The dichotomy was deftly handled and allowed the reader to see how those privilege are treated differently in this part of the world than they would be in America. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to be escape to Madagascar and learn about the unique Red House, but remember this is not your typical novel.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Nicole Toft

    4.5 stars. I took a chance on this book having not heard much buzz about it, and I was completely rewarded. Andrea Lee’s biography is much like her main character’s. Shay Gilliam is an African American academic who falls in love with an Italian man, and they split their time between Italy, the US and an island off the coast of Madagascar in a “neo-colonial pleasure palace.” She is at first entranced by her vacations there but her feelings soon turn to disillusionment. She feels at home with her 4.5 stars. I took a chance on this book having not heard much buzz about it, and I was completely rewarded. Andrea Lee’s biography is much like her main character’s. Shay Gilliam is an African American academic who falls in love with an Italian man, and they split their time between Italy, the US and an island off the coast of Madagascar in a “neo-colonial pleasure palace.” She is at first entranced by her vacations there but her feelings soon turn to disillusionment. She feels at home with her white friends in Italy, but uncomfortable around many of the native Malagasy. She examines these conflicting thoughts and feelings throughout this novel, which is more like a book of connected short stories. Throughout it all, though, is Shay, at first a newlywed in love with her husband and their island home, then, as a mother of young children, then as a mother of older children who are also aware of their place in the world, then as a disappointed wife who realizes that the magic and myth of Madagascar is not enough to keep her there. The narrator’s voice is fantastic, using accents to fully grasp the multi-cultural nature of the island. Underneath it all is the exotic land itself, described as sandy white beaches, aqua seas, tropical breezes, poor shanty towns, mountainous terrains.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Patricia

    Thanks to Scribner, I was able to read an advance copy of this new book that will be sold in March 2021. The Red Island House of the title is a luxurious estate on a small island in Madagascar, built by the businessman husband of the main character, Shay. The book follows Shay over her twenty year relationship with the house, her husband, and mainly the times of her life when she lives on the island. It comes across as a set of short stories that are combined to make a novel. Unusual, but it works Thanks to Scribner, I was able to read an advance copy of this new book that will be sold in March 2021. The Red Island House of the title is a luxurious estate on a small island in Madagascar, built by the businessman husband of the main character, Shay. The book follows Shay over her twenty year relationship with the house, her husband, and mainly the times of her life when she lives on the island. It comes across as a set of short stories that are combined to make a novel. Unusual, but it works. Shay is a well educated college professor from California who marries a much older Italian businessman, a relationship that mystified me throughout the saga. The couple make their home in Milan where she teaches a popular course on black American literature at a university and he conducts his business. The island is their vacation home where they are always outsiders. However, they each relate to their island life from their different perspectives. He has no desire to be a part of the island. He is there to make his fortune. Shay, on the other hand, finds a correlation between their place on the island and the history of her former enslaved ancestors which leaves her conflicted in her relationships there.

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