The novel The Island of the Elyms is set in a village of Sicily. It touches four generations of a well-to-do family and relates the tragic and humorous occurrences in the life of each member of that family. The story is narrated by a young girl, Marianna, whose romantic ideals and openness are often in conflict with the secretive and reserved nature of her family.
Marianna loves the more salubrious and rustic lifestyle of the land-workers as opposed to the refined and sophisticated lifestyle of her aristocratic family. She feels the former to be an honest way of life and the latter a pretentious and artificial one.
Marianna, with the exuberance of youth, would like to see a radical change in the way her family deals with certain issues. She herself represents a slowly changing society.
However, the people whose beliefs have been forged and impressed into their very soul by generations of tumultuous historical events, are resistant to change. Eventually, Marianna learns to appreciate the island's cultural richness and its paradox. A sense of history and mythology, superstition and religion, in fact, often exist alongside one another and are portrayed in the novel.
The novel touches also on both the First and Second World Wars because two members of Marianna's family, her grandfather and father, fought in each war respectively. It depicts every human emotion by means of adopting humor and tragedy throughout.
One might say that in the novel The Island of the Elyms there is a book within the book as the lives of Marianna's great grandparents and grandparents emerge. The former being read by Nonna from her mother's memoirs and the latter narrated by Nonna herself.
When finally Marianna is comfortable with who she is - different from the rest of her family, she is torn away from her birthplace for the great unknown which happens to be Australia. The story ends with the uprooting of the girl by the family, who, inturn, has to forfeit and abandon every dream, and thus becoming the innocent victim of the tragedy of emigration.