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Red Island House

A Novel

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From National Book Award–nominated writer Andrea Lee comes Red Island House, a travel epic that opens a window on the mysterious African island of Madagascar, and on the dangers of life and love in paradise, as seen through the eyes of a Black American heroine.

“People do mysterious things when they think they have found paradise,” reflects Shay, the heroine of Red Island House. When Shay, an intrepid Black American professor, marries Senna, a brash Italian businessman, she doesn’t imagine that her life’s greatest adventure will carry her far beyond their home in Milan: to an idyllic stretch of beach in Madagascar where Senna builds a flamboyant vacation villa. Before she knows it, she becomes the reluctant mistress of a sprawling household, caught between her privileged American upbringing and her connection to the continent of her ancestors. So begins Shay’s journey into the heart of a remote African country. Can she keep her identity and her marriage intact amid the wild beauty and the lingering colonial sins of this mysterious world that both captivates and destroys foreigners?

A mesmerizing, powerful tale of travel and self-discovery that evokes Isabella Allende’s House of the Spirits and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Americanah, Red Island House showcases an extraordinary literary voice and gorgeously depicts a lush and unknown world.

This reading group guide for Red Island House includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

From National Book Award–nominated author Andrea Lee comes a gorgeously evocative epic about love, clashing cultures, and identity, set in the tropical African island nation of Madagascar.

“People do mysterious things when they think they’ve found paradise,” reflects Shay, the heroine of Red Island House. When Shay, a Black American professor who’s always had an adventurous streak, marries Senna, an Italian businessman, she doesn’t imagine their union will carry her far beyond their home in Milan to an idyllic stretch of beach in Madagascar, where Senna builds a flamboyant vacation villa. Before she knows it, Shay has become the somewhat reluctant mistress of a sprawling household, caught between her privileged American upbringing and her connection to the continent of her ancestors.

At first, she’s content to be an observer of the passionate affairs and fierce rivalries around her, but over twenty tumultuous years of marriage, as she and Senna raise children and establish their own rituals at the house, Shay finds herself drawn ever deeper into a place where a blend of magic, sexual intrigue, and transgression forms a modern-day parable of colonial conquest. Soon the collision of cultures comes to Shay’s door, forcing her to make a life-altering decision.

A captivating, powerful, and profoundly moving novel about marriage and loyalty, identity and freedom, Red Island House showcases an extraordinary literary voice and an extravagantly lush, enchanted world.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Consider the two epigraphs that form a gateway into Red Island House: the first alleging that “the natives [of Madagascar] are, or seem to be, very Human” and the second affirming that the country is “sacred” but “at the mercy of outside interests.” How do these two perspectives, from a colonizer and an indigenous Malagasy person, inform the narrative that follows?

2. One of the first stories we hear about Madagascar, from Shay’s husband, Senna, is the probably fictitious tale of the pirate colony of Libertalia. How does this theme shed light on Senna’s own actions? Can we trace it as an origin myth underlying the destiny of the Red House?

3. In “The Packet War,” after Senna falls asleep, Shay lies in the darkness and thinks, “I have a house in Africa …” (page 21). What is this a reference to? How does Shay’s identity as a Black American woman complicate her status as the “mistress” of the Red House?

4. At times, Shay imagines that her two happy, well-cared-for children are the “shadow twins” (page 73) of Didier and Harena, the abandoned children of an Italian nobleman who briefly visited Madagascar. Why does she feel this? Can you further explore this connection?

5. Shay believes Caroline la Blonde, one of the “bar girls” on the island, regards her with a mixture of “pride, deference, curiosity, and barely hidden resentment” (page 76). But how does Shay regard Caroline, and the other young women like her? Does she feel sympathy, understanding, kinship, antipathy, amusement?

6. In the long battle between old men in “The Rivals,” who do you believe was victorious? Anyone?

7. Orso tells Shay that, “That island paradise of yours sounds more like Purgatory!” (page 151). What do you make of that statement? Do you agree or disagree? Can you trace the theme—and pitfalls—of pursuing life in paradise throughout other parts of the novel?

8. In “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” sex tourism in on display, but the way the story deals with it creates more questions than answers. How does the story either reinforce or challenge your understanding of sex tourism?

9. Shay is very fond of her housekeeper Bertine and is often very open with her. Is there evidence that Bertine allows herself to be vulnerable with Shay in similar ways? Discuss the power dynamic in this relationship. Is it static or does it shift as the narrative progresses? Can they truly be defined as sisters?

10. Shay tells Baptiste the body painter that she is fascinated by exoticism—“artists and writers trying to process other cultures by rendering them ornamental and harmless” (page 240). How does Red Island House engage with the notion of the exotic? What draws Shay and Senna, together and separately, to Madagascar: the ornamental surface or the deeper currents?

11. The novel ends with the birth of a child—a child whose conception, Shay believes, mirrors truths from her family history, and the larger history of North America. What does this final narrative event reveal about the nature of her relationship with Senna? With Madagascar? With the Malagasy people?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Explore the work of Malagasy writers like Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa (Naivo), author of Beyond the Rice Fields.

2. Explore Andrea Lee’s earlier books: the memoir Russian Journal, the novel Sarah Phillips, the short story collection Interesting Women, and the novel Lost Hearts in Italy.
Photograph by Daniela Foresto

Andrea Lee is the author of five books, including the National Book Award–nominated memoir Russian Journal, the novels Red Island House, Lost Hearts in Italy and Sarah Phillips, and the story collection Interesting Women. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, she has written for The New York Times MagazineVogue, W, and The New York Times Book Review. Born in Philadelphia, she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Harvard University and now lives in Italy.

Praise for Red Island House

"This transporting history of an imperfect marriage braids together dramatic episodes, island history and fable, all infused with Lee’s sharp insights into human nature."
—People Magazine

"Come for the views, stay for simmering tensions and culture clashes. Lee welcomes readers with lush language, then lays out a dazzling buffet of choices and assumptions that are ripe for questioning."
—The New York Times

"A gorgeous narrative that perhaps only Lee could have constructed — an ambitious attempt to use fiction to explore the reality of a world fractured by race and class."
—The Washington Post

"Lush, perceptive... a unique, surprising work – at once a psychological novel, a novel of place and a novel about relationships."
Mark Athitakis, USA Today

"Lee combines luscious physical descriptions with sharp-witted social perception in this thrilling novel... she approaches the broadly political and the minutely intimate with equally fine prose."
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy, Minneapolis Star Tribune

"Lee’s striking writing is layered and thick with evocative descriptions of people, landscapes, feelings and foreboding. Sociological and psychological, it’s prose with the abstract feel of poetry. The stories of Red Island House are vibrant and enchanting." 
—BookPage, starred review


"Offers a captivating take on colonialism, privilege, race, and heritage."
Christian Science Monitor

“Journey to the island of Madagascar through the eyes of a Black American woman in an epic tale that explores the dangers of love against the backdrop of paradise."
—San Francisco Book Review

"Andrea Lee whisks you to the island of Madagascar and spins interconnected stories set on the beach."
—Martha Stewart Living 

"Lee writes with such lush and observant precision that you feel you are traveling with her."
The Millions

"Brilliant and tragic."
Booklist, starred review

"A mesmerizing novel... The lush natural habitat and privileged ex-pat existence contrast starkly with the island’s poverty and traditions, and Lee makes magic of this to deliver a singularly intriguing and mysterious saga that casts an enduring spell."
O Magazine, Most Anticipated Books of 2021

"Gorgeous writing, fascinating stories, and a vibrant cast of locals and expats dance around this basic theme ... An utterly captivating, richly detailed, and highly critical vision of how the one percent lives in neocolonial paradise."
—Kirkus, starred review

"Seductive... the writing is vivid... the overall impact is quietly powerful."
—Publishers Weekly

"Lee is known for the evocative settings of her...books...I’m excited to travel to Madagascar with her new novel."
—The Every Girl

"The star is Madagascar... whose terrain is so gorgeously described by Lee that any reader with an ounce of adventurousness would move to the island tomorrow. But beauty can never hide tension for long, and Lee deftly handles race and class in ways that resonate even for those who could not find Madagascar with a GPS." 
Air Mail

"Red Island House is one of the best novels of the year. A beautifully constructed manifesto on the Black expatriate view of the world, Andrea Lee explores mixed race heritage and inheritance in such an electric, interesting way.”
Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of Libertie

“Andrea Lee's new novel—about a Black American woman caught between her privilege and her identity—is daring, riveting and deep. The lavish vacation home she and her husband build on an impoverished African island is a collision course, and like this novel, will make you question everything you thought you understood—about allegiance and race, politics and desire.”
—Danzy Senna, author of New People

"Andrea Lee's latest novel is a work of supreme knowingness, and keen observation. As one of the more articulate voices we have on the exigencies of race, place, and gender, Lee has rendered, in this superbly constructed and felt book, that rare thing: a work of the imagination as shattering as the truth."
Hilton Als, author of The Women and White Girls

“‘In Madagascar, everything speaks’ . . . if you can hear it. And hear it all does Andrea Lee’s exquisitely sentient protagonist. At first dimly, but then with an ever more discerning ear, Shay attunes herself and the reader to subtlety after subtlety, until the island has yielded extraordinary truths, not only about itself, its people, and its visitors, but about the undertow of plunder. This is a ravishing book ofuncommon depth; I loved it.”
—Gish Jen, author of The Resisters

“Lee’s Red Island House is a seductive, haunted dreamscape where ancestors stir trouble across four centuries and three continents. From the moment Shay Senna arrives at this seaside Madagascar paradise, she senses danger. Betrayal comes but so does reconciliation and a healing sisterhood, as Lee lures us into a realm where boundaries between the real and the surreal disappear.”
—A’Lelia Bundles, author of Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker

"This magical novel—a collection of reflections and vignettes—is as lush, dense and vivid as the Madagascar it describes. Pairing rich detail with reflective restraint, Lee has created something truly beautiful: At once an exploration of an enchanted island and a meditation on modern womanhood."
Taiye Selasi, author of Ghana Must Go

"At once charming and deeply serious, this eloquent, elegant, beautifully written novel takes on the full range of human experience: love and disappointment, hope and betrayal, race, class, colonialism, moral obligation, the high cost of being an outsider--and the equally high price of belonging."
Francine Prose, author of Mister Monkey

"I know of no other writer who creates the kinds of worlds Andrea Lee imagines—the exquisite prose, the otherworldly landscapes, the fascinating people. Red Island House transported me. It may have looked like I was sitting on my couch reading a book, but I’m telling you I traveled to Madagascar.”
—Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of Wench and Balm

More books from this author: Andrea Lee