Book Club Reflection: The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman

6 Jan

My book club met to discuss The Light Between Oceans just before Christmas. I wrote a review of this book a few weeks ago and if you didn’t read it, you can view it here and see how much I absolutely loved it. It’s on my highly recommended shelf. I’m still thinking about it.

The author herself is a very interesting character. She was born and raised in Western Australia, where the book takes place. She’s a lawyer in London now. From the few interviews she’s given, Stedman comes off as a very private person, not wanting to talk about herself in interviews and preferring to stick to the plot of her books. We found it interesting that the only lawyer in the book, the man who represents Tom, was portrayed very favorably in the book.

I think the characters are a good place to start the analysis. Tom was a very difficult character for me to understand. When he’s young, he felt responsible for his parents split, but he doesn’t understand what he did. He’s connected telling his father about the car in front of the house with his parents splitting up, but he doesn’t know that the car implies another man and his mother’s infidelity. From the description I’m not sure if his rift with his brother and father stems from him feeling guilty all his life and being submissive because of it, or his father was blaming him for the split and the brother emulating his father. Either way is a sad story. Someone argued that Tom didn’t really know how to be a parent because of how hands-off his parents were and that he kept himself at arm’s length from Lucy because of the guilt he felt toward her so that losing her didn’t hurt him as much as it would hurt Isabel.

We frequently came back to Tom sending Hannah notes during our discussion. We all agreed that it was a huge mistake of his to give the rattle away and we thought that his motivations were completely selfish and self-serving. To him, it was a form of repentance and confession, but he was putting his family in danger and dragging Hannah along for the ride. We couldn’t figure out how he thought he was helping Hannah by doing this. We agreed that if he felt so guilty as to leave a note, he should have given Lucy back at the christening. At that time, Hannah had just started to move on, finally moving out of her father’s house, and received the crippling news that her baby was still alive. None of this is helpful for a widow. She had finally given up hope and is more or less told to keep looking. When Tom’s gift is bigger the second time, we suspected his guilt was catching up with him and growing in a similar way and one of our members suggests that he might have turned himself in the next time in an even bigger jump toward absolution.

Tom’s character paralleled Frank, Hannah’s late husband, in one big way; his propensity to forgive. Frank forgave the town that looked down on him and prosecuted him because they believed him to be German. He forgave them their ignorance and hatred and stayed. In a similar way, Tom was able to forgive Bluey for turning him in and dissolving the family they had created. Hannah wants to emulate Frank (and Tom) and forgive Gwen when she takes Lucy-Grace to see Isabel. I believe Hannah saw this similarity and also saw both men as protectors. Frank had protected Isabel from the mob the night he died and Tom had protected her on the ship. I like that these characters were drawn in parallel because it just made the accusation that Tom had killed Frank even more ridiculous to the reader.

When Hannah decides to forgive Tom and Isabel, she uses a quote that Frank had said many times, “You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day.” With this mentality, Hannah was also able to say goodbye to the Grace she had had as an infant and welcome the Lucy-Grace child she then had.

One of our members felt that the author manipulated Hannah. By the time she got the first note from Tom, she could have been re-married or had met another guy, but she had just gotten over the love of her life. Isabel might have been more apt to give Lucy back, but had just found out she went through menopause early and was unwilling to give up the only child she’d ever have. A lot of bad timing combined to give Hannah the short end of the stick throughout the entire book.

Isabel was by far the most interesting character to me. I sympathized with her for wanting to keep Lucy, but at the same time I didn’t understand how she could let the child go. I think I said it when I wrote my book review, but one of the great things about this plot line is that there is no right or wrong, everyone loses in some way. Someone drew a parallel between the scene where Isabel labels the map of Janus with names for different landmarks and keeping Lucy. Both were ways to stake a claim over something that was borrowed. Isabel could find a way to make something hers even if it wasn’t. She could be very manipulative at times. She manipulated Tom into keeping Lucy-Grace against his best judgment. If Tom hadn’t believed that the mother was dead, and there was very little evidence to support this, he never would have kept the child. Isabel had also convinced him that orphanages were terrible places and that keeping the child was more humane than letting her rot in an orphanage for years until someone adopted her. Perhaps the most defining manipulation of the book was when Isabel pushed for their marriage. It was against Tom’s best thinking at the time because he didn’t think the island was a good place for a family, but Isabel was still able to talk him into it.

I found it interesting how Isabel dealt with Tom being in jail. At first, she wanted him to rot there for what he did to her. I think she started to feel that she had some fault in the process as well. She came to realize that Tom was taking the blame for both of them and that what they had done really was wrong and Tom had known it. Some even thought she was going to kill herself before she went and talked. I think she realized she was going to lose Lucy-Grace and it was better not to lose Tom as well while she could prevent that.

Someone brought up if we thought Tom and Isabel would have gotten a divorce in modern society. Most of us decided that they wouldn’t have, for the main reason I stated above. They had both lost their child, born of them or not. Losing each other in a divorce would have ripped them both apart even faster and I don’t think they could have borne it. They had each other to share their grief and I think that’s what Isabel needed more than anything.

There is so much to say about little Lucy-Grace even when she was at such a young age. She was old enough to know her parents and to love them fiercely but she was still young enough that the doctors knew her memory of the life she had already lived would be fuzzy at best. Reader, I ask you to tell me your distinct memories before age four. Harder than you thought, isn’t it? Even so, what happened in the early years of Lucy’s life affected even her name. She still refers to herself as Lucy-Grace when she finally meets Tom.

In the early 1990s there was a custody battle between adoptive and birth parents in our area, known as the Baby Jessica case. I was young, but many of the woman in my group remember this, specifically pictures of a young girl screaming as she’s taken away from the parents who raised her and given back to her birth parents. We wondered if Stedman was inspired by a case like this one.

Only after she had her own child did Lucy-Grace realize what Isabel and Tom had done for her and how hard it would have been to give up the child they had raised. There were a lot of parallels between Lucy-Grace and her parents in the last pages. Like Tom had gone to see his mother and missed her death by days, Lucy-Grace came to see them very shortly after Isabel’s death. Like Tom had gotten a letter from his father just after his death, Lucy-Grace had the letter from Isabel when she came to visit. Like Tom, Lucy-Grace joined the military, probably without knowing her adoptive father had been a military man. One of our members suggested it had to do with discipline.

Cover Image via

Cover Image via

The author chose very interesting names for Lucy and the island. Lucy means ‘light,’ appropriate for a child raised near a lighthouse. Lucy is the light between two oceans, Isabel and Hannah. We thought this was a beautiful parallel. Janus is the god of doorways who is always looking both ways, like Lucy-Grace had two lives and two women who loved her fiercely. The lighthouse is between two oceans in a very rough area, which Isabel considers going on the night Tom is taken away. It’s a great parallel of the custody battle that will ensue. The cover brought up some good questions as well. The light is off in the cover picture and since Lucy is the light, it foreshadows that Lucy will leave the island. If you look at an enlarged copy of the cover, take a look at the middle of the light. Is it a man or an unlit light? We loved that it was ambiguous. For the record, I think its Tom. Also, the row boat that Frank comes in is on the inside cover.

Stedman did a wonderful job developing her characters, even the minor ones. We felt that Septimus was a wonderful grandfather for Lucy-Grace and loved that Bluey still married the girl he was pining after even without the reward money.

Writer’s Takeaway: Stedman did wonderfully with this novel. I loved how much she made you care for each character and how she evoked so many emotions. One of our members asked me and another younger member if we thought the book didn’t mean as much to us because we’re not mothers. I think I could still relate to the feeling of loss, but this is a book that I would re-read once I am a mother because I think it would mean something different to me then.

Stedman’s descriptions were wonderful and allowed us to really see the island. I liked that they were deep descriptions but not too much that we knew too much. We also enjoyed how the book started with finding Lucy and went back to explain how the events came to pass

Wonderful read that made for a great discussion. Still a full five out of five stars.

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6 Responses to “Book Club Reflection: The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman”

  1. Ashlee June 3, 2014 at 8:26 AM #

    I finished this book last night and I absolutely loved it too! (A drastic contrast between the writing in it and the writing in The Maze Runner, that’s for sure.) I went from moment of hating Isabel to moments of commiserating with her. I have no idea what it feels like to be deprived of human contact, save a husband, for years while failing to start a family. I have no idea what that would do to a person, so it’s hard to judge her decision. But I loved at the end when this is pointed out to Hannah. Yes, it seems as if they made the wrong choice to outsiders, but no one knows what they went through out there. I also loved that Lucy-Grace thanked Tom for saving her. As messed up of a situation it is, they were the ones who were able to keep her alive when she very well could have died alongside her father. They gave her a chance at life, hoping that chance was with them, when really it was for Hannah. The amount of love it takes to let someone go…

    My book club meets in a few weeks so I’m excited to share some of your insights with the ladies. Especially the part about Lucy meaning ‘light.’ It definitely gives the title a new meaning.


    • Sam June 3, 2014 at 11:45 AM #

      The connection of ‘Lucy’ to light in the title made the whole story mean so much more to me. The subtle symbolism that Stedman was able to tie into the book was just incredible. I’m so glad you enjoyed it as much as I did.

      As a reader, I always want to be able to sympathize with the characters, but I wouldn’t wish Isabel’s situation on anyone. The poor woman.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! It’s always great to hear someone else loved the book!


  2. Joyce Bergen August 23, 2016 at 6:51 PM #

    I just finished reading Stedman’s book a few days ago, and it’s still ‘simmering’ in my mind and yes, in my heart, as well. The characters had so much substance; the plot was well-paced and totally engaging.
    I loved the little symbolic treasures that were tucked into the storyline. Here’s one example. Remember when Isabel planted a rosemary bush beside the white.crosses in memory of her miscarried babies? Rosemary as a plant means ‘remembrance.’ She wanted to plant a rose garden by their cottage on Janus Is., but that never happened. However, in their later years, Isabel and Tom did have yellow rose bushes on their small farm overlooking the ocean. Yellow roses mean ‘forgive and forget.’ I wouldn’t have known this, but I’ve just read “The Language of Flowers,” also a novel with themes of loss, forgiveness and the power of maternal love. It was in that book that I came to learn about the meanings of flowers and herbs, based on a Victorian dictionary of the ‘language’ of flowers. Now I don’t know if Stedman planned these symbolic meanings into her prose, but they do seem to be more than coincidental. So delightful!


    • Sam August 23, 2016 at 6:55 PM #

      I’m so glad you loved it! I also read ‘The Language of Flowers’ and enjoyed that as well. I’d say it’s likely Stedman knew what she was doing whens he picked those flowers since they line up so well, as you say. Especially because she was so specific about the Rosemary and the color of the roses, I’d say it was intentional. I’m so glad you enjoyed the book. I’m looking toward pairing it with the film, soon. Happy reading!



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