Imagine sipping coffee from the comfort of your home when your husband suddenly notices a job posting at the back of The Economist that sounds absolutely perfect for him. “This is the kind of job I worked for all the way through graduate school, the kind of work I wrote about in my doctoral thesis!” Heart dropping, you remind him that you both already have jobs—he as a teacher at the University of Washington, and you as a city accountant. He convinces you that it wouldn’t hurt to apply, chances being slim that he’d be selected.
Diana and Jay leave home to build a life in the Philippines. “She couldn’t remember now what he’d said to convince her or whether she’d convinced herself. One way or the other, though, as the days passed, she came to believe it wouldn’t be so bad after all to give up her job and their house. She started questioning whether she’d always played it too safe, wondering whether she actually did want a settled life with one day very much like the one before it.” (p. 115) But Diana’s happiness depends upon one thing: getting pregnant, that elusive propagation that comes so easily to others. Stress, her doctor has told her, is the culprit. Nothing physiologically is preventing it for the couple.
Chen’s visual descriptions exhibit an adeptness that escort a reader into every scene with precision and perception. “A small group of school-age children was just entering the pool area, the boys whooping and running ahead…The lifeguard raised his megaphone and shouted at the boys, who switched to speed walking until they were close enough to the edge of the pool for a quick run and a leaping cannonball.” A moving picture in words!
Upon relocating to Vanuatu, Diana begins to think more about Jay’s first wife, who died while pregnant. She can’t shake doubts creeping in: “He doesn’t belong to you. You’re the renter, the interloper. The wife who came too late to bear fruit.” The island paradise with its tempting tropical backdrop doesn’t yield so quickly to Diana’s plan to bring a child into the world. Every island has its leeward side, after all, and Vanuatu is no exception.
When in Vanuatu‘s allure lies in the no-nonsense third person narration of a very gifted story teller. Chen manages to engage readers as Diana and Jay’s companions in their travelogue, including circumstances with which many women can identify: fertility challenges, becoming the “spouse follower,” and perhaps finally yielding to the reality that some things in life are out of one’s control. However, “…it wasn’t in Diana’s nature to walk in circles…Her life had been all about getting somewhere—to college, grad school, a good job, a promotion, a marriage….right now she was directed toward one and only one destination: getting pregnant.”
I recommend this book to any woman, especially one struggling with fertility. A person who enjoys travel, the Expat life, or learning about exotic destinations will also enjoy it.