The two-paragraph version: In March 2020 towards the beginning of the pandemic in the U.S., Diana O’Toole travels to Isabela Island in the Galápagos on vacation by herself after her boyfriend, a doctor, has to stay behind to tend to COVID patients. She becomes stranded there when the island goes on lockdown, and she meets Gabriel Fernandez and his daughter Beatriz. Over the next two months, she reflects on her life and becomes romantically involved with Gabriel. She also helps Beatriz, who is struggling with coming out as gay. In the U.S., Diana’s mother (who she had a complicated relationship with) passes away from COVID.
One day, Diana gets caught in a riptide, and when she awakes she learns she’s in the U.S. and has been being treated for COVID for the last 10 days. She never went to the Galápagos and instead she hallucinated the trip. As Diana tries to make sense of her memories (were they a dream? was it an out of body experience? was it a vision of the future?), she also learns her mother never died and works to resolve her issues with their relationship. Eventually, Diana realizes that even if it wasn’t real, the experience changed her. She decides to change her career and break up with her boyfriend. In the Epilogue, Diana travels to Isabela Island in May 2023. She encounters someone in the same manner that she met Gabriel in her dream. The book ends as she turns around to see who the person is.
In Part One, the book opens on March 13, 2020, and coronavirus cases have just started being detected in the U.S. Diana O’Toole is an ambitious and driven 29-year-old working for Sotheby’s, and her boyfriend Finn is a doctor at New York-Presbyterian. Diana meets with the infamous Kitomi Ito (a fictional stand-in for Yoko Ono) regarding the upcoming auction of a very famous painting by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Securing the painting for Sotheby’s was a huge coup for Diana, but today Diana gets the unfortunate news that Kitomi wants to hold off on the auction to limit the spread of coronavirus.
Diana and Finn are supposed to travel to the Galápagos the next day, but Finn ends up staying behind since the hospital needs him. Diana travels alone, but arrives at Isabela Island to learn that it’s under a two-week lockdown due to the virus. Everyone else is leaving, but she impulsively decides to stick around. When she finds out the hotel she booked is also closed, Diana is relieved when an old lady (“Abuela“) lets her stay in the tiny apartment attached to Abuela’s house.
Diana soon meets Abuela’s son Gabriel and an unhappy 14-year-old girl named Beatriz, who is Gabriel’s daughter with his ex-wife. Beatriz and Gabriel show Diana around the island. Eventually, the two week lockdown turns into two months. Over that time, Diana has limited cell reception and WIFI access, but she gets regular e-mails from Finn detailing the progression of the virus in the States. Diana’s mother with dementia, who was always distant with Diana growing up, gets COVID and passes away.
Meanwhile, Diana also feels a romantic connection with Gabriel and they sleep together. Diana also gets to know Beatriz and learns that she is sad and self-harming because she was rejected by a girl she likes who was too scared to come out to her parents. Eventually, Beatriz comes out to her father, who is accepting of her, and they’re able to start working on their estranged relationship.
One day, Diana and Gabriel go swimming, and Diana gets caught in a riptide. When she awakes, she’s still alive, but she learns that she’s actually in the U.S. Apparently, she’s been ventilated for the last 5 days and has been being treated for COVID for the last 10 days. Diana is informed that she actually never went to the Galápagos and her memories of it are all some type of hallucination or dream.
In Part II, Diana is still recovering from COVID and has to undergo rehab to re-learn how to move, walk and eat. With much effort, she eventually gets released from the hospital.
Diana also learns that she’s been furloughed from Sotheby’s, which means she is now jobless. She starts considering going back to school to study art therapy. Diana also starts to rethink her relationship with Finn, which she realizes was more suited to the person she was before. However, her experiences on Isabela Island — real or not — have changed her and she’s no longer sure they want the same thing.
Meanwhile, she tries to make sense of her memories that feel very vivid and real to her. Diana starts looking into survivors who have similar stories as hers about vivid hallucinations. Possible theories include it being merely a hallucination as a bodily response to stress or perhaps it’s an out of body experience or alternate reality or something else altogether.
At the same time, Diana learns that her mother is still alive and becomes determined to take the opportunity to spend time with her while she can. She starts visiting her mother frequently (from afar due to COVID restrictions), even though her mother’s dementia means that she doesn’t recognize her. She makes peace with her mother being an imperfect and distant mother during her childhood. There’s eventually a COVID outbreak at her mother’s assisted living facility, and her mother falls ill. Diana goes to see her, and her mother’s memory is temporarily clear again. They share a moment and her mother soon passes away.
Soon afterwards, Finn proposes to Diana, but she turns him down, saying that he did nothing wrong, but he’s not right for her.
In the Epilogue, it’s now May 2023. Diana has completed her art therapy degree and has her own practice. She travels to Isabela Island. At the tortoise enclosure, someone stops her as she reaches inside, which is same manner that she met Gabriel in her dream. The book ends as she turns around to see who the person is.
Diana O’Toole recalls how her father, a conservator, was tasked with restoring the zodiac ceiling in Grand Central Station when she was six. She describes how he left a small un-restored patch in the northwest corner, which is customary for restorers, in case historians later want to study the original composition. Diana then narrates that the “only way you can tell how far you’ve come is to know where you started”.
Diana, 29, is an associate specialist at Sotheby’s. Her boyfriend Finn Colson is a resident at New York-Presbyterian, and they live in New York. Diana is driven and ambitious, and Diana thinks about how she and Finn are great together because they have similar goals. She has recently found a ring in his underwear drawer and they’re going on vacation to the Galápagos tomorrow, so Diana is hoping he’ll propose then.
On March 13, 2020, the coronavirus has just recently been detected in the United States, with 19 cases reported in New York City. The subway is quieter than usual. Diana goes to see Kitomi Ito (“the most infamous rock widow”) who is known for her marriage with musician Sam Pride of the Nightjars, who was later stabbed on the steps of their building.
Basically, Kitomi Ito is a stand-in for Yoko Ono. Sam Pride is John Lennon. The Nightjars is the Beatles, etc.
Diana is at Kitomi’s regarding the sale of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting which Kitomi originally acquired as a wedding gift from Sam Pride. There is a famous Nightjars album cover with Kitomi and Sam emulating the figures in this painting, and the painting can be seen hanging above them on their bed.
However, today, Kitomi tells Diana she wants to hold off on the auction for the painting. She’s concerned about potentially spreading the virus at the auction, and she’s worried about the crashing stock market.
Back in the office, Diana’s boss, Eva St. Clerck, is displeased with this news. Diana is also worried, since securing this painting had been a huge coup for her, and she’d been hoping it would get her a promotion. Diana commiserates with her closest work-friend, Rodney.
Afterwards, Diana heads to the Greens, an assisted living facility in Hastings-on-Hudson where her mother with dementia, Hannah, lives. She briefly checks in on her mother, who often does not recognize her now. Diana wonders why it bothers her not to be recognized now, especially since her mother barely even knew her before. Growing up, Diana’s mother was distant and often away. Diana’s father passed away four years ago.
That night on the news, Diana reads about things like the state of emergency declared by de Blasio, the sports cancellations, and the Met closing down.
Finn tells Diana that the hospital thinks it’ll be swamped with COVID cases by Monday and that he can’t go on vacation. He says she should go alone, since it’s better for her not to be home in case he brings back the virus from the hospital.
Soon, Diana is in Ecuador, alone. The airline has unfortunately lost her suitcase. When she talks with Finn via FaceTime, she realizes Finn is still at the hospital and has likely been there for 12 hours already, and he looks exhausted.
The next day, Diana makes her way to the Galápagos, where she’ll be staying at Isabela Island for two weeks. She takes a flight to Santa Cruz Island, the a bus to the ferry and then a water taxi from the ferry to Isabela Island. On the water taxi, she is seated next to a adolescent girl who seems unhappy.
When she reaches the island, Diana learns that the island is closing down for two weeks. There’s a mob of people trying to get water taxis to return to the ferry to get to Santa Cruz and fly out of the area.
Unlike everyone else, Diana decides to stay. She figures her suite is already booked for the next two weeks anyway. With some difficulty since she does not speak Spanish, Diana finds Casa del Cielo where her reservation is. However, she’s informed by a woman that the hotel is closed. She tries to call Finn, but there’s no signal.
On the street, on old woman who has just exited the hotel gently guides Diana to a little house with a tiny apartment attached. She says “you” and “stay”, indicating that Diana can stay there. She then refers to herself as “Abuela” (meaning “grandmother”).
In the house, she finds some basic like a few t-shirts and some toothpaste. There’s also a box of oversized promotional postcards for a company called G2 Tours.
Situated in the apartment, Diana ventures out to find food and a phone signal. She fails to find either, but does come across a “GIANT TORTOISE BREEDING CENTER” in an open-air courtyard. In an enclosure, Diana is delighted by the sight of the giant tortoises.
Above them, is an apple tree with small, green apples that the giant tortoises are munching on. Diana reaches out to grab one, but just as she touches it, she’s yanked back by a man who says they’re poisonous.
Diana quickly sees that he’s right and that her fingers are red and hurting from where she touched it. At the entrance of the center is a sign in Spanish and English warning that “MANCHINEEL TREES ARE NATIVE TO GALÁPAGOS. ONLY GIANT TORTOISES CAN DIGEST THESE POISONOUS LITTLE APPLES.” The man tells her to just soak her fingers in cold water. He also asks about the shirt she’s wearing, which she borrowed from the tiny apartment.
“Apples” on a Manchineel Tree
That night, Diana comes home to see that Abuela has left her some hot food on the tiny kitchen table. She gobbles it up, and leaves a note to say thank you under Abuela’s front door. She also writes a postcard to Finn.
Lost in her thoughts, Diana thinks back to being selected as an intern for Sotheby’s and being determined to impress Eva St. Clerck. She recalls meeting Rodney and them being inseparable. Now, “nine years and several promotions later”, she thinks about how she’d managed to secure “Kitomi Ito’s Toulouse-Lautrec … and lost it”.
The next day, Diana goes exploring again but everything in Puerto Villamil is closed. She manages to flag down the shopkeeper in the closed market who lets her purchase the limited groceries that are left, since the locals also stocked up before the lockdown.
Diana is walking down the main drag when she finally hears a ping on her phone. Diana sees that she has a little bit of a signal. There’s an influx of messages from Finn, and she checks her e-mail to find an email from him, detailing the severity of the situation at the hospital. Finn describes the deaths he’s seen, the need for layers and layers of protective gear, the impossibility of preventing the deaths and the difficulty of caring for patients while trying not to contract the virus themselves.
Reading about the dire situation at the hospital, Diana feels childish for feeling sorry for herself for her vacation going poorly. She tries to send him a comforting message back, but she loses signal again before she can.
Afterwards, Diana thinks about the time she fell down the stairs at Sotheby’s. At that point, she’d been working there for three years and had been in a rush, taking a tumble and breaking her wrist. Rodney had brought her to the emergency room at New York-Presbytarian, where the admitting doctor had been Finn. He had fixed her up and put her arm in a cast. He then signed her cast with his name and phone number.
In present day, Diana decides that she needs to find a way back to the mainland. Diana goes looking for a boat rental. At the dock, the only one there is the man she’d met at the giant tortoise center. She offers to pay him to take her to Santa Cruz. However, he says that they’re on a lockdown and federal officials will arrest them if they’re found traveling.
Instead, she ends up walking until she reaches Concha de Perla, a snorkeling spot she’d planned on visiting. In the water, she comes across two penguins, though one of them pecks her and she swims away. She then gets splashed by a sea lion, and she splashes back. Then, Diana notices drops of blood coming from above. She sees the unhappy girl from the water taxi and gets a glimpse of the self-inflicted cuts on the girl’s arm before she pulls down her sweatshirt. The girl tells Diana that she’s breaking the island’s 2 PM curfew right now and walks away.
Back at Abuela’s house, she sees that Abuela is trying to calm someone down, who is angry. It turns out to be the same guy from before who identifies himself as Gabriel. He says that Abuela is his grandmother and that the tiny apartment is his — or it was until he moved out a month ago. He also tells Diana that she’s wearing his shirt.
Diana then sees the girl from the water taxi walk up. Gabriel looks relieved, runs up to the girl and embraces her.
As the days pass, Diana gets used to running in the morning and staying indoors reading after curfew. She sleeps early. Abuela continues to to bring her food sometimes.
Later, she sees the girl from the water taxi picking up recyclables on the beach. The girl says her name is Beatriz. Beatriz is 14. She was living with a family in Santa Cruz where her magnet school is, but the school was shut down due to the lockdown. Gabriel is her father. He used to be a tour guide for the business that his father started, but now Gabriel works as a farmer. Her mother left when she was 10.
Before she leaves, Beatriz also gives her the WIFI password for the hotel, though she warns that they may have turned off the modem during the lockdown. Otherwise, Beatriz recommends that Diana get a SIM card so she can get internet access. Finally, Beatriz also offers to hand off her postcard fpr Finn to a fisherman who might be able to deliver it.
Diana follows Beatriz’s instruction to find a shop called Sonny’s Sunnies where she’s able to get a local SIM (but not one for international calls), along with some random clothes. Diana also asks about an ATM, but the woman says there’s none on the island.
As she’s in the store, a woman named Elena walks in with a little boy on her hip. Diana recognizes her as the woman from the hotel. When Diana mentions that she’s staying in Gabriel’s apartment, Elena gets angry and stalks off. The shopkeeper tells Diana that Elena is “just pissed because she wanted to be the one sleeping in his bed”.
When Diana gets a little big of a signal again, she gets another e-mail from Finn. He talks about how they are struggling to figure out how to treat COVID patients and how overwhelming it all is, even though it’s only been one week.
Diana thinks back to 2016, when her father had been working on replacing the art on the ceiling of a room in the New York Public Library. As the directed the installation of canvases for the ceiling, he fell off a ladder and ended up in the hospital.
Diana had been busy that day inspecting a painting as it was being shipped to their offices. Her phone buzzed incessantly that day. When she finally had time to answer her phone and rush to the hospital, it was too late and her father had died from a hemorrhage in his brain. Afterwards, she’d seen that her father had texted her asking to get together two days ago, but she hadn’t responded since she was busy.
In present day, Diana writes back to Finn, not knowing if he’ll be able to receive her postcards. She writes about how she’s spending her time on the island, and tells him about Abuela and Beatriz.
Diana soon runs into Beatriz again as Beatriz is picking up trash from the beach. Diana tells Beatriz about working at an auction house, about an artist who makes art from trash, and she tries to ask Beatriz about her cutting. Beatriz says she does it because “it’s the kind of hurt that makes sense”. Beatriz also talks about feeling trapped on the island and wanting to leave. She offers to mail more of Diana’s postcards.
In the next e-mail Diana gets from Finn, he talks about how Hispanics and Blacks are the hardest hit by the virus, since many of them are essential workers, and they often live in homes with multiple generations of the family under one roof (so a teenager can pass it to his grandfather, etc.). He also talks about being shipped thousands of gloves when they thought they were getting N95 masks and seeing their chief of surgery cry when found out. Finn talks more about the treatments they’re trying (“proning”, etc.) as well.
Diana responds with another postcard, and she talks about how being isolated has helped her look inwards and reflect on her life.
It’s now been a little over week on the island, and Abuela invites Diana over for lunch, and Beatriz is visiting as well. When it’s time to eat, they call for Beatriz, but she is crying and refuses to come out. Gabriel soon shows up. Diana tells him to leave her be and asks him if he knows about the cutting, but he says it’s none of her business. Gabriel and Abuela then try to comfort Beatriz.
The next e-mail from Finn talks about the stigma of those with COVID and the difficulties regarding keeping the patients’ oxygen levels up so they don’t die.
The next morning, Gabriel brings Diana a box of fruit and vegetables to apologize for being short with her the other night. He tells her that he wasn’t aware of the cutting until Diana told him. He says that Beatriz has only been willing to say a few words to him at a time since she’s been here, but that she was very vocal about defending Diana.
Diana also tries to give him back his old t-shirts, but he doesn’t want them since his wife Luz used to sleep in them. He offers to fix the wobbly kitchen table, and Diana suggests that he bring Beatriz along. Before he leaves, he offers to show Diana around the island sometime.
Diana continues to send postcards each day to Finn, which Beatriz sends out for her. She wonders how things are at work now that the situation is getting so serious in New York.
Diana thinks back to meeting the infamous Kitomi Ito for the first time. Eva had brought her along, but told her not to talk. Diana remember seeing the painting for the first time and how it made her feel like she’d traveled in time. Diana was there to assess the condition of the painting, while Eva was there to convince Kitomi to use Sotheby’s as her auction house instead of Christie’s, which Kitomi had historically worked with.
She had done a lot of research on Toulouse-Lautrec as part of this acquisition. Tulouse-Lautrec was a ladies man and died from syphilis, likely given to him by his model Rosa la Rouge, who was also a prostitute. He painting images of bohemian Paris and lived in brothels for weeks at a time to paint the lives of sex workers. He was interested in “the difference between how a person acts in a certain environment and how they do when they’re alone—the space between the showman and the self”.
Painting from Lautrec’s Le Lit series
The Kitomi Ito painting was part of his Le Lit series, which dealt with “prostitutes in bed in quiet moments of intimacy”. Diana remembers looking at the painting and thinking about how it was all about stillness — the moment after intimacy. The model for it was Rosa la Rouge and Lautrec had painted himself in it, too.
Kitomi said that she was selling the painting because she was moving and because she was ready to close this chapter of her life and move on to a new one. Eva had then started in on her pitch, saying that they would highlight the painting’s artistic value as a Toulouse-Lautrec, but also its association with Sam Pride since his celebrity would heighten its value.
As Kitomi talked, she discussed how Sam had wanted to move to Montana to raise sheep. Then later, she mentioned that she was now going to move to Montana and didn’t think it felt right there. Diana also peeked in her bedroom and saw that his wedding ring was still on the nightstand on his side of the bed. With that, Diana realizes that Kitomi wasn’t moving on from her husband at all, but rather was still so in love with him that she was going to “live out the dream he didn’t”.
Despite her instructions not to speak, Diana had made a suggestion.
In present day, Beatriz shows Diana around the island. Diana talks to Beatriz about art and her father’s work. She says that anything in theory could be art. When Beatriz talks about how her mother’s abandonment is part of the reason why she started cutting, Diana talks about how her own mother seemed to always want to get away from her and how she felt unimportant to her mother. The come to a wall that Beatriz explains was build by inmates. She says that they weren’t given sufficient food and many of them died building the wall.
The Wall of Tears at Isabela Island
Along the wall, Diana’s phone suddenly rings, and Finn is on the phone. She eagerly answers it, moving around to find the spot with the best signal. He tells her about how in Guayaquil (city on mainland Ecuador) the COVID deaths are piling up, but Diana reassures him that things seem okay on the island. Finn says that he feels unhappy about her not being there when he gets home, though Diana points out he was the one who told her to leave. Finn also laments the many dead that he’s seen before the signal cuts out.
Afterwards, Diana carves both her and Beatriz’s name into stones near the wall, and she tells Beatriz that it’s art.
Diana thinks about how Kitomi’s Toulouse-Lautrec painting was even rarer because he rarely painted himself. He had skeletal dysplasia which is why he was short with child-sized legs. If he did paint himself, he hid his deformities. However, in Kitomi’s painting, he “was literally and figuratively baring himself, as if to say that love renders you naked and vulnerable.”
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Kitomi’s painting had originally been stashed away with express orders to only sell it to “someone who is willing to give up everything for love”. The first owner ended up being Coco Chanel, who got it as a gift from a man trying to lure her away from her former lover. Later, Edward VIII bought it from her to give to Wallis Simpson. Then, Simpson sold it to Joe DiMaggio to give to Marylin Monroe just before she died. Eventually, DiMaggio sold it to Sam.
Diana thinks about how the painting’s provenance — starting from how it reflects Toulouse-Lautrec’s devotion to his model who gave him the syphilis that killed him — is all about “devotion so fierce, it scorches the earth with tragedy and lays waste to those who experience it”.
In his next e-mail, Finn writes more about the deaths he’s seen, including many patients in their twenties. He also apologies for giving her a hard time for not being with him.
The night before Diana’s two-week trip is up, Abuela cooks her a goodbye dinner, which both Gabriel and Beatriz attend. However, the next morning, she heads to the dock, and Beatriz informs her that she can’t leave since the ferry isn’t operating. Also, flights are currently stopped.
When Diana balks at not being able to see Finn, Beatriz tells her that Abuela has a landline she can use (which she hadn’t mentioned before). Left with no other options, Diana leaves him a message, telling him the news about not being able to leave.
Gabriel reassures Diana that they’ll make sure she has food to eat, since she is unable to use her credit cards there and they don’t have ATMs on the island.
The next day, Gabriel and Beatriz take Diana to a inland swimming home that Gabriel used to frequent as a boy. Diana is initially unimpressed by the muddy-looking lagoon, but when she swims to the other side of the mangrove thicket, she sees that the water there is beautiful magenta color. Beatriz explains that the little crustaceans there give the water that color.
In the water, they talk about Darwin and how it’s a misconception that he discovered evolution by studying finches on the Galapagos Island. While he did study the finches, Gabriel tells her what actually helped Darwin makes his discoveries were his studies of mockingbirds around the islands.
The next day, Diana sees that the flea market is open, with everyone wearing masks for safety. She sees Abuela there and quickly realizes that the market operate via the barter system. As she looks around the market, she sees some boys bulling a smaller boy with a lisp, ripping up his comic book. Diana motions him to come towards her. She does a quick portrait of him wearing a cape like the hero in his book, and she gives it to him as a gift. Diana had previously spent the summer before college traveling and doing portraits of tourists for money. The boy is delighted and runs over to show his mother.
Soon, the boy returns with a piece of fruit as a gift. Then, a little girl shows up with an orange and hands Diana a blank postcard. Diana realizes that she has something to use to barter for food. A few hours and a few portraits later, Diana has some clothes and Abuela cooks using the food that Diana bartered for.
Diana gets another e-mail from Finn, who describes how flights out of New York have been stopped and shutdowns are in effect. He says that the families of residents at the hospital are now staying in hotels to limit virus exposure. He worries about catching the virus himself. He also says he doesn’t care about the Empire State Building being lit up in red and white to honor healthcare workers, he just wants people to wear a mask. Finally, he notes that Diana’s mother’s assisted living facility, The Greens, has been calling for her.
After receiving that letter, Diana calls The Greens using Abuela’s landline. (Diana tries to keep her calls to a minimum due to the expense of international calls.) On the phone, the facility reports that they’ve had a coronavirus outbreak and that her mother is sick. Diana asks to please see her mother, and they reluctantly agree to try to schedule a FaceTime with her.
Of course, Diana realizes after she hangs up that she can’t FaceTime right now. However, after explaining the situation to Gabriel, he offers to let her use his phone. He takes her to the hotel and has Elena turn on the WIFI so that Diana can use it. The call itself is brief — her mother dismisses her immediately, saying she’s too busy to talk, and then she breaks down in a fit of coughs.
After the call, Diana asks Gabriel about his relationship with Elena, which he indicates was a one-night stand. He then suggests that they explore the island with Beatriz to get her mind off of the situation with her mother.
Gabriel takes her on a panga boat to an area where they go swimming. As they explore in the water, they come across a group of sleeping sharks. Diana freaks out, though Gabriel laughs it off, saying they’re not the type that kills humans.
Sitting on the beach, they talk about Beatriz. Gabriel says that Beatriz spent years living with her mother and asked to come here because of the virus. Before that, she always just stayed with her host family during vacation. Diana figures that Beatriz is angry because she feels like she’s lost “her mom, her friends, her future” all at once. She suggests that perhaps Beatriz is keeping him at a distance so she won’t care as much if she loses him too at some point.
As they spot some iguanas on the sand, they talk about evolution. Gabriel comments that “evolution is compromise” and that “you can’t move forwards without losing something”. Gabriel also reaches out and touches her on the neck, but before anything else can happen, they’re interrupted by a park ranger named Javier.
Javier recognizes Diana because she gave her son a drawing, and she realizes his son was the boy being bullied at the flea market. Javier agrees to let them go without reporting them.
Later, Diana writes to Finn again, and she thinks back to her first meeting with Kitomi again. Diana had suggested to make the auction about privacy rather than fame. She suggested that instead of doing a big public announcement, that they private invite some well-heeled celebrity couples. That way, the event would be exclusive and Kitomi would essentially be able to choose who had a love story that was worthy of continuing this painting’s story.
When Eva realized that Diana has spoken against her instructions, she immediately told Diana to leave. As she started yelling at Diana in the car, Kitomi called, saying she wanted to go with Diana’s idea and that she wanted Diana to be the specialist in charge.
In present day, in the next e-mail from Finn, he reports that The Greens called again. He also says he’s just completed a 72-hour shift. He thinks about a patient whose husband died and whose wife didn’t, and they didn’t want to tell the wife.
The next day at dawn, Diana and Beatriz go to explore the trillizos — collapsed lava tunnels — at the enter of the island. Diana asks Beatriz about her friends from school. Beatriz responds that she can’t check social media to see what they’re up to, though “the silver lining is that I don’t have to see what people are saying about me”. Diana wonders if Beatriz is being bullied at school.
Beatriz talks about how her mother never wanted her. She assumes that her mother got pregnant, so Gabriel proposed and so she felt she had to say yes.
They soon reach a hole in the ground with a ladder going down, and Beatriz encourages Diana to climb down with her. Towards the bottom Beatriz tells her that they’re in the belly of a volcano. Down there, they play truth or dare, and Beatriz admits there’s someone she wishes she could be with.
Beatriz says that it’s a girl named Ana Maria, who is two years older than her and who is her host sister. She says they kissed and for three days they were happy together. However, then Ana Maria decided it was a mistake and that her parents would kill her if they found out. After that, Beatriz couldn’t stand to stay with her host family during the lockdown.
Meanwhile, Diana thinks about how being isolated on the island has given her a sense of clarity about herself and her life that she didn’t have before.
Still clinging onto the ladder, Beatriz decides to let go of it and let herself fall, but Diana grasps on to her and tells Beatriz to grab on to her. (“I wanted to know what it would be like,” she cries, “to just let go.”)
It’s now been four weeks that Diana has been on the island. A bunch of e-mails soon come through, some from Finn, some from The Greens saying that her mother is in the same condition, and one from Sotheby’s saying that she’s been “furloughed, along with two hundred other employees, because of a massive downturn in the art sales industry”.
A week later, it’s Diana’s birthday and Gabriel invites her over to his farm. Diana and Gabriel go off to pick fruit while Abuela and Beatriz prepare a surprise, which turns out to be a birthday cake. As Diana goes to make a wish, Diana realizes she feels like she has everything that she needs at the moment.
Later, under the stars, Diana and Gabriel decide to camp out there while Beatriz and Abuela stay in the house. Outside, Diana talks to Gabriel about her work as they drink cane sugar alcohol. She also talks about her mother, who was an award-winning photographer who traveled around the world for her work. When she mentions her friend Rodney, she pays close attention to his reaction when she mentions that Rodney is gay. Gabriel doesn’t seem to react.
Gabriel says at one point he wanted to be a scientist studying marine biology, but then Luz got pregnant so his plans changed. He says that Luz always felt like she was too young to be a mother. She ended up running off with a National Geographic photographer.
For her birthday present, Gabriel takes Diana on a seven-hour hike to the Sierra Negra volcano. Gabriel pays Diana a complement by saying that she’s no longer like a tourist, but has gotten to really experience the island like the locals do.
Diana then asks Gabriel why he no longer does tour guide stuff. He describes the day that he and his father took some divers out on a drip. One of them got sucked into the current. His father went after him, but neither the father or the last diver ever resurfaced. Gabriel feels guilty since he was the one who originally checked the conditions, though Diana points out that conditions in the water can quickly shift. After that, he no longer wanted to do tour guiding anymore.
Towards the end of their hike, they see Beatriz who runs over to give Diana a message. It’s a printout of an e-mail from the Greens that says that Diana’s mother is dying.
They head back and directly to the hotel, where Gabriel has asked Elena to have the WIFI ready for them to use. Diana makes a FaceTime call to The Greens and the nurse lets Diana see her mother, though she warns that her mother is in a bad state and her organs are failing. Diana tries not to think about the ways that her mother hurt her. She says a few words, but then the connection dies.
Afterwards, Diana gets a text saying that her mother passed away. That night, she wrestles with the memories of her mother.
When Gabriel comes to see her back at the tiny apartment, they become physically intimate with each other and have sex. The next morning, they wake up wrapped up in each other, but are interrupted by the presence of Beatriz who has made breakfast for Diana. Beatriz looks betrayed, drops the breakfast and runs out. Diana understands that she has hurt Beatriz because she felt like Diana was “her person” but Diana had then effectively chosen Gabriel instead.
Gabriel is unable to find Beatriz, so they look through her room for clues as to where she might have gone. As they do, Diana finds a stack of all the postcards to Finn that Beatriz had claimed she was sending to him.
Then, Gabriel finds a photo of Beatriz kissing a girl that has been torn up and taped back together. He asks Diana what she knows, and Diana says that it’s Ana Maria, who is Beatriz’s host sister. She also tells him that Ana Maria is the reason why Beatriz decided to stay with him instead of staying with her host family as usual. Diana is relieved that Gabriel seems unbothered by the fact that Ana Maria is a girl, but instead is more upset that Beatriz had her heart broken.
Diana then gets an idea of where Beatriz might be. They head out to the collapsed lava tunnels that Beatriz had taken Diana to. Sure enough, they find Beatriz there, crying. They attempt to comfort her and hours later they eventually get Beatriz back to Abuela’s.
Late in the day, Gabriel tells Diana that Beatriz is doing okay and that he’s been talking to her about Ana Maria and everything she’s going through. He tells her that he named his daughter after Beatriz from Dante’s The Diving Comedy. He explains that “Beatriz is the one who kept Dante going when he walked through hell. And every time I’ve found myself suffering, my Beatriz is the one who pulls me back.”
Diana continues to get e-mails from Finn that are increasingly grim. He talks about leaving a 36-hour shift and seeing a refrigerated truck for bodies they can’t fit into the morgue.
For the next few days, Diana doesn’t see either Beatriz or Gabriel. She takes a walk to the Wall of Tears. When she gets a phone signal again, Diana calls The Greens to make arrangements for her mother’s cremation. Then, she leaves another message for Finn.
Finally, at the dock at Concha de Perla, Diana comes across Beatriz again. Diana apologizes to Beatriz for what she saw while Beatriz apologizes for not sending the postcards. Diana suspects that Beatriz kept the postcards because “she wanted to keep me to herself, once she’d made me a confidante”.
Later, Diana writes Finn another post card taking about how sometimes when mistakes or bad things happen, sometimes it ends up being for the best. She ends the postcard by saying that “maybe I have been wrong all along, and this is where I was always meant to be.”
It’s now May 9, nearly two months that Diana has been on the island. She slept with Gabriel two and a half weeks ago. Today, she finds a note from him, inviting her on a hike tomorrow morning.
They end up biking and hiking to a beach called Playa Barahona. Diana tries to avoid the topic of their night together, but as they sit on the beach, Gabriel tells Diana that he felt like “all the stars had aligned” when it happened. Diana doesn’t respond.
Instead, they go swimming. However, Diana gets caught in a riptide that pulls her away from Gabriel and the safety of the beach.
Chapters 7 – 10
(Each chapter is a few words long, indicating Diana going in and out of consciousness as someone tries to wake her.)
Finally, Diana awakes in the COVID ward of a hospital. Finn is there. He tells Diana that she has been ventilated for five days. She asks about Gabriel and returning from the Galápagos, but Finn says that many patients end up delirious when they get taken off a ventilator and that she never went to the Galápagos.
Diana’s nurse Syreta confirms that she has taken a “sedation vacation” and never went to the Galápagos. Diana is upset since her trip felt so real to her. She learns that it’s currently March 24, so it’s only been 10 days since she got COVID, not the many months she thought she’d spent on the island.
As Diana recuperates, she’s lonely since everyone is busy and she’s isolated by her hallucinated memories. When she soils herself, an attractive certified nursing assistant named Chris shows up to help her. Soon, a physical therapist named Prisha shows up to help her try to move her body, since Diana needs help to even sit up properly. When someone named Cosima comes to clean the room, Diana isn’t sure if she’s seeing a ghost since she’s no longer sure what’s real and what’s not. When Diana and Finn talk, he feels guilty about most likely being the one who gave her COVID.
An intensivist comes to visit Diana, and he explains that some scientists think that the pineal gland produces DMT — a psychedelic — when it’s under stress, which may have happened when she was sedated. That may be why she had such vivid fake memories.
When Diana gets moved out of the ICU, she works with a speech therapist named Sara to help ease her off of her feeding tube. A nurse named Zach removes her nasogastric tube. Diana is soon moved into the rehab unit, and she gets a new physical therapist, Maggie and occupational therapist, Vee.
When Diana finally calls The Greens, she learns that her mother is still alive and does not have COVID. She wants to go visit her mother, but Finn reminds her that she needs about 15 days in rehab. He also starts talking about a house that he’s looking at for the two of them in White Plains, New York. However, Diana feels unexcited about it and makes an excuse to end the conversation.
While in rehab, Diana calls Rodney and tells him getting COVID and about her hallucination about Isabela Island. He suggests that if it really did feel real to her, she should talk to Finn about it. He also tells her that Sotheby’s has furloughed them, so they are both jobless now.
By her second day in rehab, Maggie starts working with Diana to stand and walk using a walker. She learns that 80% of ventilated COVID patients die. By day four of rehab, Diana is now able to use a wheelchair, and they start working on walking. She is also now finally testing negative for COVID. Vee says they have a surprise for Diana, and they take her to see Finn in person.
When Diana gets a chance to talk to Rodney again, she tells him about how she still can’t seem to shake her memories. He suggests that perhaps she’s having trouble letting go because she wants it to be true. She also tries Googling the stuff she saw and the people she knew. She looks up G2 Tours and sees that it was indeed a touring company that is now closed. But Rodney says that she could have subconsciously noticed it when she was originally planning the trip and dredged it out of her memory during her hallucination.
Eventually, on the 12th day of rehab, Diana is able to get to the bathroom and go by herself, washing her hands afterwards. Soon, she’s discharged and Finn comes to get her. Maggie hugs her before she goes. People applaud as she leaves, but Diana realizes that they’re emotional because they’re in need of hope.
Back at home, Diana and Finn eat and make love. When he’s almost asleep, Diana mentions that she thinks that her hallucination was real and mentions Gabriel, but Finn doesn’t ask more about it.
The next day, Diana looks at the many obituaries in the newspaper and the horrifying headlines. She also starts to think about what other jobs she might do relating to art now that she’s jobless. She thinks about how she’d already been thinking about this when she was hallucinating that she was in the Galapagos. She considers that perhaps the trip to Galapagos didn’t happen, but rather was something that was supposed to happen in the future.
Online, Diana sees that many other also have stories about vivid and wild dreams from when they were ventilated due to the virus. Diana feels comforted knowing that she’s not going crazy and that other are dealing with similar feelings about their dreams as well.
The next day, Finn brings back some reusable cloth masks that one of the ICU nurses, Athena, made for her and Finn. Later that night, Finn gets emotional talking about how he though she was going to die. There’s a moment where it sees like Finn might propose, but Diana excuses herself to go to the bathroom to prevent it from happening.
The following day, Diana continues her rehabs so she can walk longer distances, knowing that she wants to be able to go visit her mother. She manages to make it to the end of the block where there’s a liquor store. However, when Finn learns what she did, he freaks out, worried that she’s pushing herself too hard.
Despite Finn’s reaction, Diana is determined to visit her mother at The Greens the next day. However, when she gets there, she’s told that The Greens is closed due to a governmental order. An old man there, Henry, is there visiting his wife, Michelle. He shows Diana how he is able to see his wife when she steps onto the screened porch outside her residence. So, Diana calls her mother and tells her to go out on the porch, and she’s able to see her.
Soon, Finn arranges for Diana to see a therapist, Dr. DeSantos, over Zoom. Diana tells Dr. DeSantos about the Galapagos and insists that it felt real to her. Dr. DeSantos explains how her brain was trying to make sense of a stressful situation and how she’ll feel better once she has more of a structure and habits in her day. However, Diana says that she liked her dream about the Galapagos and that she “liked it better there”.
As Diana continues to look into the stories of survivors with vividly confusing dreams, she comes across the story of Eric Genovese from Cedar Rapids. He’s a 52-year-old man who was working as a delivery man for Poland String truck driver. He was hit by a car crossing the street. In the 20 minutes it took for him to be resuscitated, he felt like he’d lived a whole other life as a computer engineer who married a woman in a cubicle next to him. In his dream, they’d had a little girl named Maya and he was a Muslim.
Curious about his story, Diana looks him up on Facebook and sends him a message.
On April 19, it’s Diana’s birthday. They have carrot cake, which Finn thinks is Diana’s favorite type of cake, but Diana thinks to herself that it’s actually Finn’s favorite. She thinks Finn is going to propose, but he gives her a bracelet instead.
As time passes, the United States reports over a million cases of COVID. Diana decides she wants to try painting again, but she has no canvas. Instead, she decides to draw on the back of their dresser. She paints a lagoon with flamingos and a machineel tree nearby. When Finn comes home, he complements her painting, but seems dismayed to see that she has decided to paint on their furniture.
That night, she dreams that of Gabriel and of herself on the beach after being rescued from the riptide by him.
The next morning when Finn hands her some coffee, Diana bursts into tears.
After that incident, Diana talks to Rodney about it, and he recommends that she speak to his sister Rayanne, who is a psychic. Diana tells Rayanne about it, and Rayanne suggests that perhaps when she died for a moment, she entered a new reality that was compressed into into a small stitch in time. Rayanne also warns her that Diana’s not done with that other life.
Diana has continued to visit her mother more at The Greens. She’s still not allowed inside, so she brings a picnic basket and has lunch outside on the lawn while her mother sits in the screened section of her porch. They “talk like strangers” and his mother tells her stories from her travels. When Diana brings up the Galápagos, her mother mentions a tortoise named Lonesome George who died. Diana recalls that she (Diana) was the one who told her mother about the tortoise’s death during her “hallucination”.
Meanwhile, Finn has been having a glass of whiskey each night after returning from work. Diana notices that the amount he drinks has been getting larger each night.
When Finn starts seeing college brochures in the mail, Diana tells Finn that she’s thinking about going back to school to study art therapy. He seems concerned about how she expects to pay for it, since she isn’t currently working. He also is upset she never talked to him about it sooner.
Diana also admits that she’s been visiting her mother, and Finn looks upset since he said he would have gone with her. Diana says that she didn’t say anything since she was worried he would tell her not to go since he’s been afraid of her over-exerting herself.
Finally, Finn says he feel like Diana isn’t letting him into her world and he doesn’t know why or what he did wrong. Diana reassures him that he didn’t do anything wrong, but deep down she thinks about how she just isn’t the same person as she was before.
When Diana talks to Rodney again and stresses out about possibly going back to school, he makes the point to her that getting COVID was the first truly bad thing that has ever happened to her, something that really “knocked the ground out from under your feet”. It’s her first time learning that “sometimes shit happens you can’t control”.
In late May, Diana runs into Kitomi Ito in Central Park. Kitomi says she’s glad that she held off on selling the Toulouse-Lautrec since it’s given her company during the pandemic. Kitomi also says that she also ended up contracting COVID. As Diana talks about her own COVID experience, Kitomi listens patiently, and Diana remembers that Kitomi was once a psychologist.
Diana then tells her about her dream about the Galapagos. As they talk, Kitomi makes the point that perhaps “trying to figure out what happened to me isn’t important. It’s what I do with what I’ve learned that counts.”
Kitomi mentions that she walks around here most days and invites Diana to join her. Then, towards the end of their walk, Diana finally hears back from Eric Genovese.
When she talks to Eric, he tells her that in his other life he was living in Kentwood and that he and his wife Leilah had been together for five years. Before his accident, he’d had a fiancé but that ended. Eric then tells Diana about he’s done a lot of research on how near-death experiences can affect people in various ways, like when someone has an out-of-body experience.
Eric says that he believes Leilah and Maya are real and that he’s determined to find them. He’s tried going to Kentwood twice and he plans to go back again to look for them.
Soon, Kitomi tells Diana that someone has made an offer on her penthouse and that she’ll be moving in two weeks. Kitomi also says she might not sell the Toulouse-Lautrec afterall, and Diana is ambivalent, saying that she doesn’t work for Sotheby’s anymore.
Later that day, Diana gets a call from The Greens and finds out that there’s been an outbreak of COVID there and that her mother is sick. They also aren’t letting visitors in.
Determined to see her mother in person, Diana goes to find their toolbox and uses wire cutters to get through her mother’s screened porch. Inside, she finds her mother lying in bed. When Diana removes her mask, her mother recognizes her for the first time in years. Diana thinks about what Eric Genovese had said about terminal lucidity and dementia patients having a moment of clarity before their deaths.
Her mother talks about how sometimes she’s in other places mentally, often places that she likes better than here. Her mother admits that she was never good at mothering and she left it to Diana’s father since he was better at it.
Than at some point her mother seems lost again, and she’s no longer mentally there. Diana watches as she falls asleep. When she wakes up, she asks Diana who she is, and Diana responds that they’re “old friends”.
Back at her apartment, Diana admits to Finn that she went to see her mother, and Finn freaks out since she was in there with a COVID patient and was unmasked. He tells her that even though she already had it, she could get it again. Finn is angry since now he also has to be quarantined and tested, which means he won’t be able to help any patients during that time.
With them angry with each other, Diana thinks about how their relationship doesn’t seem to be working anymore. Later, Finn asks her if she still wants to stay together, and Diana doesn’t really answer.
Two days later, a staff member helps Diana FaceTime with her mother. After that, her mother passes away. Diana thinks about how she was angry at her mother for so long, but she misses her now.
Chapter 15 – 17
(Each chapter is a few words long, indicating that Diana is upset and sad about the passing of her mother and spends a few days in bed.)
In day 9 of their quarantine, Finn orders Diana to get up and take a shower. Diana thinks about how in the days she spent in bed after her mother’s death, she didn’t dream about Beatriz or Gabriel again.
Finn and Diana sneak out of quarantine to go take a walk. Finn talks about how this experience will effectively leave a “scar” on everyone, changing them in some way “for the long haul”. When they reach Carl Schurz Park, Finn proposes. However, Diana tells him that he’s “perfect”, but “not perfect for me”.
Epilogue (May 2023)
In May 2023, Diana has now completed her art therapy degree and has started her own practice. Diana has been roommates with Rodney after moving out of Finn’s place. Finn is now engaged to Athena (the ICU nurse).
Along with her patients, Diana has created three large stones — modeled after Japanese tsunami stones that “descendants of earlier settlers not to build their homes past a certain point” — with artwork about the pandemic, the first of which is currently installed in the lobby of the MoMA.
Diana now makes her way to Puerto Villamil and finds Casa del Cielo. It looks different from the one in her dream. The clerk speaks perfect English. Diana asks if someone named Elena works there, but he says he doesn’t think so.
As she explores Isabela, she realizes it’s a combination of images she saw in photographs and places that are starkly different from what she saw in her dream.
Diana makes her way to the tortoise breeding grounds, which is closed apart from the babies in the pens outside. Diana sees that one of the babies has toppled over and is flipped on its back. She hoists herself up on the wall to flip it over just as someone grabs her wrist to stop her.
Not Recommended Published November 30, 2021
Page Count 336 pages
Goodreads3.93 (out of 5)
From the Publisher
Diana O’Toole is perfectly on track. She will be married by thirty, done having kids by thirty-five, and move out to the New York City suburbs, all while climbing the professional ladder in the cutthroat art auction world. She’s an associate specialist at Sotheby’s now, but her boss has hinted at a promotion if she can close a deal with a high-profile client. She’s not engaged just yet, but she knows her boyfriend, Finn, a surgical resident, is about to propose on their romantic getaway to the Galápagos—days before her thirtieth birthday. Right on time.
But then a virus that felt worlds away has appeared in the city, and on the eve of their departure, Finn breaks the news: It’s all hands on deck at the hospital. He has to stay behind. You should still go, he assures her, since it would be a shame for all of their nonrefundable trip to go to waste. And so, reluctantly, she goes.
Almost immediately, Diana’s dream vacation goes awry. Her luggage is lost, the Wi-Fi is nearly nonexistent, and the hotel they’d booked is shut down due to the pandemic. In fact, the whole island is now under quarantine, and she is stranded until the borders reopen. Completely isolated, she must venture beyond her comfort zone. Slowly, she carves out a connection with a local family when a teenager with a secret opens up to Diana, despite her father’s suspicion of outsiders.
In the Galápagos Islands, where Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was formed, Diana finds herself examining her relationships, her choices, and herself—and wondering if when she goes home, she too will have evolved into someone completely different.