An Embarrassment of Mangoes
Ann Vanderhoof
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Buy *An Embarrassment of Mangoes: A Caribbean Interlude* online

An Embarrassment of Mangoes: A Caribbean Interlude
Ann Vanderhoof
320 pages
February 2005
rated 3 of 5 possible stars

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Ann Vanderhoof and her husband Steve did what many of us only dream of doing. Bogged down by the rituals and pressures of daily life in Toronto, they decided to take a break. And what a break it was! A skeptical Ann is convinced by Steve to embark on a two-year journey to the Caribbean islands on their forty-two-foot sailboat. The journey allows the couple to relax and not be captive to time. It lets Steve exercise his sailing and fishing skills. More importantly, it helps Ann unleash her pent-up interest in cooking as she searches the Caribbean islands far and wide to savor and record exotic dishes. The book is interspersed amply with recipes of dishes that Ann and Steve enjoyed during their sojourn.

Ann and Steve’s path, often ridden with tropical storms and hurricanes, takes them to the Dominican Republic, St. Bart's, Grenada, and Port of Spain in Trinidad, among others. Vanderhoof paints a picturesque portrait of tranquil islands lush with green foliage and postcard-perfect azure skies. Larger-than-life characters, whose actions might invoke skepticism in other parts of the world, are featured in Vanderhoof’s narrative. There is Edward Hamilton in the Dominican Republic, who is the self styled Minister of Rum. This job gives him carte blanche to travel around the neighboring islands and imbibe huge quantities of alcohol, ostensibly for tasting purposes. Mr. Butters is a Grenada greengrocer who sees his pristine area of land (that he does not own but uses as his own, nevertheless) usurped by a greedy developer who wants to build a resort complete with a golf course. The most touching figure in the book, however, is Dingis, a forty-something Grenada woman who befriends Ann and Steve. Valiantly holding her family together amid poverty, Dingis exhibits a rare kind of generosity of spirit that touches a deep chord in Anne and Steve. It is no surprise, therefore, to note that Ann and Steve returned to Grenada four years later just to keep in touch with Dingis’s family.

To a certain extent, though, Vanderhoof’s schizophrenic approach to the narrative undermines its attraction. The author is not clear as to whether it is a sailing book or a travelogue of exotic places. There is a plethora of sailing technicalities to obfuscate the average reader. Lengthy descriptions of turbulent passages through hurricanes and storms might have a sailing buff salivating but leave a reader looking for cultural snapshots of various places wanting. Vanderhoof is at her best when she details her encounters with locals. Following an all-night music festival in Grenada, Ann and Steve visit a music store to buy a local artist’s record. The conversation with the proprietor of the music store goes like this:

“Good day, do you have any CDs by Ajumal?”
"No, but I’ll call him at home. Maybe he can bring some over.”
Vanderhoof makes the observation that such a response is unlikely to happen at a Sam Goody’s store in Toronto if they were looking for the Rolling Stones’ Bridges to Babylon! Vanderhoof whets the reader’s appetite by vignettes such as this and leaves him yearning for more..

The central theme of the book is that it takes courage to abandon a steady, reliable way of life to seek adventure. Both Ann and Steve got out of their comfort zone and flourished as more rounded humans at the end. The description of an almost parallel life – the life of cruisers – the cadences of everyday life on the seas, the dependence on meteorologists, and the empathy and camaraderie they share with fellow cruisers is both the strength and the shortcoming of this book. It allows Ann to capture the richness of their journey, but it also lets her take her eye off the culture and characters that make this part of the world distinct. By paying only superficial attention to these details, it ends up as a expanded travel magazine article, rather than a memoir of a life-changing vacation.

© 2005 by Ram Subramanian for

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