What was this thing, the pursuit of happiness, that moved out of reach as you approached? Was the emphasis on the wrong word? Was it simply about pursuit? Did said happiness evaporate when one got within proximity of it, moving off to lure one from yet another difficult, forward location?
Tatjana Soli’s new novel, The Last Good Paradise, is a black comedy that takes place on a remote island in the South Pacific. Ann and Richard, a successful couple in their thirties, run away from Los Angeles after an unscrupulous business partner bankrupts them. They take refuge at “the most isolated, lonesome destination” Ann could find — Sauvage, a resort “sans telephone, WiFi, or electricity”. Their relaxing idyll turns into a melodrama with a quirky cast of characters.
I began reading this book with high hopes, having admired the author’s previous novels — The Lotus Eaters (about a love triangle in wartime Vietnam) and The Forgetting Tree (a family tragedy set on a California citrus ranch). I’ve always been fascinated by French Polynesia, Captain Cook’s voyages, and,seafaring stories — especially Mutiny on the Bounty and Moby-Dick.
Each chapter starts with a creative title (“Unnamed Atoll Somewhere in the Tuamotu Archipelago”;”Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life”) and an epigraph from Moby-Dick. Just as Captain Ahab was obsessed with the elusive white whale, so the characters in this novel are obsessed with the pursuit of happiness. Moby-Dick references show up repeatedly throughout the book; on the very first page, we learn that the law firm where Ann is a junior partner is called Flask, Flask, Gardiner, Bulkington, Bartleby, and Peleg. (Those are all the names of characters in Moby-Dick.) Later, has-been rock star Dex Cooper writes a song called “The White Whale”.
Corporate attorney Ann has “been obsessed with islands since she as a child”:
Had it started with Treasure Island, continued through Gilligan’s Island reruns (while her friends debated whether they wanted to be Ginger or Mary Ann, she had always wanted to be the Professor)? Had it ignited with that treacly remake of The Blue Lagoon with Brooke Shields? All the endless incarnations of Mutiny on the Bounty?
It’s no surprise that Ann’s legal adversary is “small fish” Todd Bligh, whose law firm bears his name . . . or that Dex’s band is called Prospero, after the Duke of Milan in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, who found refuge on an island when he was shipwrecked. (Loren, the Frenchman who runs the resort, actually is a stand-in for Prospero.)
Ann and the other characters are all seafaring adventurers, arriving at a distant island by boat in pursuit of happiness. Like Charles Strickland, the protagonist (based on Paul Gauguin) of one of Ann’s favorite books, The Moon and Sixpence, everyone on the island is searching for what Ann calls “crisper, greener, happier pastures”. She muses that “even the no-nonsense men in white wigs who wrote her country’s founding document understood that happiness — or at least its dogged pursuit — was important enough to equate with life and liberty as their guiding lights.”
Solti portrays her characters with insight, affection, and humor. All of them think they can escape from the modern world, but they find it’s impossible for them to leave their problems behind. They may have “unplugged”, but they still feel a deep yearning for connection.
Interesting material and great writing — why didn’t I love The Last Good Paradise? The first two chapters moved quickly, bringing Ann and Richard to the island and introducing the rest of the characters. Unfortunately, the rest of the book moved very slowly, failing to build any momentum until the final chapter. The characters, with the notable exception of Ann, were cliched and uninteresting.
I applaud Solti for her willingness to try something new, and I thoroughly enjoyed her perceptive humor — not to mention all the literary references. I encourage you to read a guest post by the author in which she discusses what led her to write a book with a happy ending and the role of comedy in literature: “Who can say Hamlet is the greater work over Twelfth Night?” Who indeed?
For more reviews, check out TLC Book Tours.