Ichabod Island, the setting of “My Kind of People” by Lisa Duffy, may be 13 miles from mainland Massachusetts, but the problems and issues that plague all of America have certainly made their way to this scenic island.
The main characters are all permanent island residents. Duffy deftly narrates the story from each character’s point of view, including Sky, the ten-year-old girl who was adopted as an infant after having been abandoned at the island’s firehouse; Leo, the island native who is married to Xavier, a guy who loves the city and doesn’t want to raise a kid on an island far from his beloved Boston; and Maggie, who had been close to Sky’s adoptive parents and often babysat for her, and who is going through marital problems of her own. There is the neighbor Joe, who built Sky her beloved treehouse and has his own secrets about what was going on in Sky’s house before her adoptive parents had their deadly accident, leaving Sky with Leo as her guardian. And there is a mysterious narrative from an unnamed woman who returns to the island as she is dying from cancer.
The story begins slowly as Duffy builds the characters and the atmosphere in their small neighborhood. We slowly learn that while the island appears to be a group of close-knit people, in actuality the people who reside there are just as snobby and class- (and race-) conscious as those who live anywhere. Agnes, the small-minded school nurse who has been Maggie’s best friend for decades, finally clashes with Maggie over her inability to accept that Sky’s guardian is black, gay, and married. Interestingly, Sky also has dark skin.
What’s lovely in this adult novel is that Sky has a say in it. Her thoughts and feelings are represented as being as important as any of the adults, and she has a lot to share with us. We go from thinking that Sky had the best home ever to realizing that like many families, hers was not perfect.
In fact, on this island “paradise,” we learn that there is much that is not as it might at first appear. Maggie’s almost thirty-year marriage is an unhappy one. Maggie must learn how to overcome some childhood issues before she can truly be happy and free to decide what kind of future she wants. Will Leo’s idyllic marriage to Xavier survive the fact that Leo now wants to live on his childhood island and raise his best friend’s daughter? Xavier doesn’t think so. Will Sky learn to be happy with Leo, or will her estranged grandmother, who just relocated to the island, try to get custody?
What Duffy does without the reader even realizing it is to create real people that we, as readers, come to care about. We really want Leo to be happy — whether it’s with or without Xavier in his life. We want Maggie to find true love, and we realize that it’s not going to happen with her husband. But will she realize it? And we wonder how she can remain friends with Agnes, who is the opposite of kind, compassionate, and generous Maggie. And we really, really want Sky to be happy and find a family that she can grow up in.
We also wonder — who is the mystery woman? And while most readers will solve that mystery fairly quickly, that doesn’t affect the power of the inevitable poignant outcome. “My Kind of People” is a touching story that carefully and thoughtfully raises questions about race, sexual identity, mental illness, what makes a family, and even how love dies. It’s the kind of book that stays with the reader long after the last page is digested because Leo, Maggie, Sky, and the other neighbors have become friends, and we want to know what their future brings. It’s a fabulous beach read even though it’s not really about the water or beach. It would also be a wonderful choice for a book club because of the myriad possibilities for an in-depth discussion.
First published on Bookreporter.com.