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The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

I had a sense of foreboding and anxiety while reading this novel — not comfortable with any outcome I could imagine. I found myself thinking about this novel days after I finished it and asking myself What would I have done given the same circumstances? What would you have done?

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman The Light Between Oceans
In 1918, after serving in WWI, Tom Sherbourne welcomes his quiet job as lighthouse keeper on Australia’s remote Janus Rock, as does his loving new wife. But three years later, a childless Isabel is bereft after suffering her third miscarriage. Tending the new grave, Isabel hears the cry of a baby; a boat has washed ashore with a dead man—and a living infant….
Two years later, little Lucy has become the center of the Sherbournes’ world. But their happiness turns when a trip to the mainland brings the discovery that she was not orphaned . . . and a desperate woman still seeks her vanished daughter. M.L. Stedman’s extraordinary debut, The Light Between Oceans, is a riveting tale of good intentions and heartbreaking consequences.Scribner; 1st edition (July 31, 2012)

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Book Club Preparation

Ratings at the time this post was published

Goodreads: 3.97 stars (192,905 ratings)
Amazon: 4.4 stars (10,275 ratings)
LibraryThing: 3.97 stars (844 ratings)
My Rating: 4.5 stars

Discussion Questions

Spoiler Alert: Discussion guide may contain spoilers to the book.

1. Discuss the novel’s title, The Light Between Oceans. Why do you think the author selected this title? What do you visualize when you hear or read The Light Between Oceans?
2. The novel is rich with detailed descriptions of the ocean, the sky, and the wild landscape of Janus Rock. Is there a particular passage or scene that stood out to you? What role does the natural world play in Tom and Isabel’s life?
3. “The isolation spins its mysterious cocoon, focusing the mind on one place, one time, one rhythm—the turning of the light. The island knows no other human voices, no other footprints. On the Offshore Lights you can live any story you want to tell yourself, and no one will say you’re wrong: not the seagulls, not the prisms, not the wind.” (page 110) Discuss the impact of living in seclusion on both Tom and Isabel. Why do you think each of them is drawn to live on Janus Rock? Do you think, in the moments when we are unobserved, we are different people?
Read more . . .

4. When Isabel tries to get Tom to open up about his family, he responds: “I’ll tell you if you really want. It’s just I’d rather not. Sometimes it’s good to leave the past in the past.”(pages 44-45) Do you think it is possible to leave the past in the past? What do you think of Tom’s opinion that it’s a “pity” that we’re a product of our family’s past? What does this tell you about his character? Discuss the impact of family history on Tom, Isabel, Hannah, and Frank.
5. Tom is haunted by what he witnessed—and what he did—during his enlistment in World War I. The narrator reflects that he’s not “one of the men whose legs trailed by a hank of sinews, or whose guts cascaded from their casing like slithering eels….But he’s scarred all the same, having to live in the same skin as the man who did the things that needed to be done back then.” (page 10) How do you think Tom’s experiences as a soldier impact his decisions throughout the novel? What other outside elements, like the war, influences the narrative?
6. Janus Rock is named for Janus, the Roman God of doorways, “always looking both ways, torn between two ways of seeing things.” (page 65) How does this knowledge impact your reading of The Light Between Oceans? Who is “torn between two ways of seeing things”?
7. Discuss the theme of opposites in The Light Between Oceans—darkness and light; safety and danger; land and water; truth and lies. How do these opposing forces shape your reading?
8. When Isabel brings Tom the map of Janus, complete with new names for all the locations on the island, Tom has an interesting reaction: “Janus did not belong to him: he belonged to it, like he’d heard the natives thought of the land. His job was just to take care of it.” (page 62) Discuss the difference in Tom’s point of view compared to Isabel’s. Does this difference in opinion foreshadow future events? How does it relate to their conflicting opinions of what to do with Lucy?
9. Did you sense that the silver rattle might turn out to play a pivotal role in the story?
10. Tom believes that rules are vital, that they are what keep a man from becoming a savage. Do you agree with him?
11. Which characters won your sympathy and why? Did this change over the course of the novel? Did your notion of what was best or right shift in the course of your reading?
12. Tom and Isabel’s deception impacts the lives of everyone around them. What did you think of the other characters’ reactions when they discover the truth about Lucy? Consider Hannah, Gwen, Septimus, Isabel’s parents, Ralph, Bluey.
13. Discuss Hannah’s reunion with Grace. Do you think she had fair expectations? Did you agree with Dr. Sumpton’s advice to Hannah about completely cutting Lucy off from Isabel and Tom?
14. M.L. Stedman makes it clear that there is no one perfect answer to the question of who should raise Grace/Lucy. She seems to undermine all notions of absolutes. It is clear that she will not dismiss all Germans as evil either. There is Hannah’s husband, ripe for persecution, and yet he is utterly innocent. Discuss the places in the novel where easy certainty turns out to be wrong.
15. Were you surprised by Isabel’s final decision to admit her role in the choice to keep Lucy—freeing Tom, but losing her child forever? Why or why not? What would you have done?
16. What did you think of the conclusion of the novel? What emotions did you feel at the story’s end? Did it turn out as you expected? Were you satisfied?
(Discussion Questions from Simon and Schuster)

The Author

ML Stedman M.L. Stedman on writing her debut novel, The Light Between Oceans:
(excerpt from The Sydney Morning Herald Interview: M.L. Stedman, March 24 2012

I began with a lighthouse, then I could see a woman at the lighthouse and I wrote a bit more and I could see there was a man and he was the lighthouse keeper, then an island, and it was off the coast of Australia and that it was a long time ago.

All that came within a day or two of writing. The process was like walking into a dark room after having been out in bright sunlight: at first you see nothing and think the room is empty, then little by little, as your eyes adjust, things emerge from the shadows and you see what’s in there.

For me, the trick is to stay, just stay. It can be tempting to say, ‘Oh, there’s nothing there,’ but in my experience, if you wait without expectation or demand, there’s always something there that will eventually let itself be seen. It may not make any sense at the time but if I write it and follow it through, it usually makes sense in the end.

Food for Thought

I made this cute centerpiece for The Light Between Oceans book club party. I placed a lighthouse lamp on a gold lacquer serving platter with decorative sand and seashells.

In a happier moment, Isabel and Lucy baked gingerbread men in the kitchen while Tom, Ralph and Bluey unloaded the September supplies. Later in the novel, Gwen bribed Hannah with toffee to keep their little secret.

Gingerbread Men and Toffees

Gingerbread Men and Toffees

Recommended Reading – Novels Set in Australia

Personal Insights, Favorite Quotes, etc…

“History is that which is agreed upon by mutual consent.”

“…I’ve learned the hard way that to have any kind of a future you’ve got to give up hope of ever changing your past.”

“She had given up everything: comforts, family, friends — everything to be with him out here. Over and over he told himself — he couldn’t deprive her of this one thing.”

Watch the trailer for the upcoming (late 2016) The Light Between Oceans movie. It has a great cast and scenery is breathtaking.  Get your hankies ready.

Do you have any other ideas or recipes for a book club party for The Light Between Oceans? We would love to have you share them with us! You can leave a comment below and upload pictures as well.

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