HomeBooksMosquitoes & Fireflies: Tangling Fantasy and Reality in ‘Mustique Island’

Mosquitoes & Fireflies: Tangling Fantasy and Reality in ‘Mustique Island’

Bestselling author Sarah McCoy’s latest novel, Mustique Island, takes readers on a vacation to the 1970s’ most exclusive, luxurious island. Digging into the hard realities on an island designed for dreamers, Mustique Island explores mother-daughter relationships and the importance of learning to be vulnerable in a world that so easily leaves scars.  

Mustique Island begins in the early 1970s, with former Texas beauty queen Willy May sailing her beloved Otrera into the shores of Mustique Island. As determined and fiery as the mythological heroine her ship is named after, Willy May comes to the island hoping to settle down and escape from the prying eyes of the strict society she leaves behind.

Mustique Island, a luxurious, escapist haven for the wealthy and elite, is a far cry from Willy May’s beginnings. Having grown up in Texas, Willy May married Harry Michael, a Royal Air Force pilot and the son of a successful brewery owner, at age 16 and moved with him to England. What she saw as an escape from her provincial upbringing instead trapped Willy May in the rigid rules of England’s upper society. Enduring the sneers from Harry’s family, Willy May had two daughters with Harry, her beloved Hilly and Joanne. But all the love for her daughters couldn’t save her marriage, especially after her husband’s affair was finally exposed. Willy May ends up a divorcee just in time to avoid becoming a widow, as Harry dies soon after the divorce. With the large settlement of Harry’s assets Willy May gains in the explosive divorce, she spends the next years sailing around the world, only to end up at Mustique’s shores at the invite of an old friend.  

Willy May’s tumultuous past seems to be the norm for Mustique Island, and the wealthy island owners Colin and Anne Tennant decide that she fits right in. Willy May isn’t as sure; between her observations of the treatment of Caribbean locals and her own incensed rage at being asked to dress up as a cowboy for show in blazing temperatures, Willy May isn’t fooled by Mustique Island’s tourist-trap perfection. The stains of the past linger despite the glitz and glamour, down to the very naming of the “Cotton House” in which Willy May briefly stays in. But the promise of Mustique Island ensnares Willy May, and she finds herself constructing her own house on the island, named Firefly, keeping in line with the island’s penchant for naming things after bugs.

The house sets in motion the events of the rest of the story. Willy May’s distant daughters, the romantic, aspiring model Hilly and the grounded musician, Joanne, get their own spotlight. One way or another, both girls are drawn back to their mother and to Mustique Island, finding romance, heartbreak and healing along the sun-soaked shores. From the lavish parties and dramatic affairs of Princess Margaret to the quiet moments mother and daughters spend reconnecting with each other, Mustique Island reads like the changing tides of the ocean, calling readers to connect with the island themselves through every page.

The novel’s starring character is the island itself, a standout from the beginning of the book. While the descriptions of Mustique Island evoke picturesque portraits of luxury—from opulent beachfront dinners to, quite literally, gilded costume parties—McCoy does not shy away from the nitty-gritty reality of living on an island. The constant reminder of the overpowering heat leaves pages sweat-drenched, and the island’s namesake, mosquitoes, remain ever-present tenants in the lavish villas. McCoy’s descriptions give the island a tangible reality that invites readers to experience it themselves, both the good and the bad.

While the island shines, the human characters are equally noteworthy. Willy May and her daughters are a delight, fully rounded and flawed characters readers can’t help but hope find the happiness they all long for together. The islanders bring their own colorful characterizations, from the eccentric, beauty-obsessed Colin Tennant to the knowledgeable, endearing housekeeper Candace and her adoptive daughter Ada, who offer both Willy May and readers a breath of reality among the dizzying illusions of Mustique Island. The only downside is that Mustique Island spends time establishing charming characters, only to leave a number of them behind as the story progresses. Nevertheless, McCoy commits to sticking by her main characters, and the female cast, in particular, comes off strong—a wide array of personalities that explore the bonds of motherhood, sisterhood and simple friendship.

At its best, McCoy’s novel doesn’t lose itself in the same glittering, fake reality that Mustique Island wears as a face. Notable names like Princess Margaret or Mick Jagger, despite the significance of their appearance, aren’t the focus of the story. Rather, Mustique Island takes the time to explore the lives of everyone who finds themselves on this paradise-esque island, whether through circumstance or on their own accord. While Mustique Island might pride itself on keeping secrets safe, the story explores the cathartic process of being honest, both with yourself and the people you love. As Willy May works to build her own paradise away from the world, she finds herself opening her heart in ways she never could before, both in relating to her daughters and pursuing her own real, true romance.

Like owner Colin’s dreams for Mustique Island to remain forever an escapist paradise cut off from the world, reality bleeds into the novel with every turned page. And all the better for the characters— Mustique Island teaches that when on an island of dreams, the true wealth lies in learning to find the real and concrete.

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