...The occasionally brilliant wording and the solid characterization make Avey Johnson an engaging protagonist. Her journey from a confused, troubled widow on an expensive cruise to a liberated woman with deeper understanding of her cultural and familial heritage make this book worth reading. This journey is interspersed with recollections of her relationship with her dead husband. This allows the reader to empathize deeply with her plight.
On a Caribbean cruise, Avey Johnson begins to have symptoms of both mental and physical illness. Driven by needs she doesn't understand, she leaves the cruise and finds herself adrift in a tide of Patois-speaking islanders, who are all intent on a cultural pilgrimage to a neighboring island. Her meeting with an island patriarch draws her into the pilgrimage as well. There, she learns that this is the culture she abandoned at the same time she abandoned her working-class roots.
The flashbacks to her life with her husband Jay not only chronicle her life preceding the cruise but also give a greater understanding of Avey as she throws herself headlong into a mysterious journey of self-discovery. The greater familiarity with the character is one of the book's strongest points.
The reason the book only rates four stars is that its symbolism makes it inaccessible when simply read for pleasure. This is not an offense worthy of a whole star, so my actual rating is four and a half stars, or 90%.
The symbolism sprinkled throughout the book does provide constant rewards, though- like Shakespeare, you can never finish gaining new insight through re-reading.
I feel confident in recommending this book to anyone who enjoys character-driven fiction. The symbolism was made apparent to me, as I read the book as part of a writing course. With that in mind, use only as directed.