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Review: Providence Island, by Gregor Robinson

Writer Gregor Robinson in a publicity image.

Toronto writer Gregor Robinson channels F. Scott Fitzgerald in his second novel, Providence Island, an examination of family, secrets and class distinctions. The narrator, Ray Carrier, moves between two worlds - that of the residents of Merrick Bay, a town servicing the wealthy summer residents of Ontario cottage country, and the extraordinary rich and complicated Miller family, which has its own island, that of the title. But Ray belongs in neither world, and Robinson makes it clear that crossing class lines is a recipe for heartache and tragedy.

The novel opens with 40-year-old Ray going back to Merrick Bay for his father's funeral. He also goes back in time to the mid-sixties, when he was entranced by Quentin Miller, a spoiled rich girl, and her relative Jack Miller was smitten by Marjorie Applewood, a town girl. Unlike his friends in Merrick Bay, Ray lives in the city, except for summers, and is going to university when he finishes high school. Ray's father is a lawyer, and after his death, Ray pieces together the bits of the past and learns of the tremendous burden of silence that his father carried for years.

The Miller family (said to be friends of the Kennedys) are ruled by J.D, the grandfather, a man who believes that money solves all problems. He ignores the desires of his grandson, Jack, being more concerned that any scandal will affect Jack's father's political aspirations. He orders Ray to stay away from Quentin, but as Quentin is doing an excellent job of ignoring Ray, that is not such a problem. Apart from taking Ray rock-climbing (heavy-handed symbolism), which results in Ray's fall and injury to his shoulder, Quentin treats Ray like a servant, even a sexual one, and appears immune to any positive feelings. She behaves as badly as the men in her family - and that's significant.

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Robinson does a smooth job of showing the excesses of youthful emotions, although overall the tone of the novel is somewhat overwrought. And because we have little information about what Ray has done in the intervening years, he is something of a cipher, much like Nick Carraway, who reports on the destruction caused by Tom and Daisy Buchanan in Fitzgerald's great novel.

Unlike Fitzgerald, though, Robinson is less deft with symbolism, but The Great Gatsby is a hard act to follow. And unlike Nick, Ray is a romantic, which makes him a deeply sympathetic character. After his encounter with Quentin, he writes to her: "I wrote to her in New York several times over the fall. People who were in love, who had made love on a summer's night, who were literate and stylish, people like that wrote to each other. I used peacock-green ink. I told her about the books I was reading: The Great Gatsby, A Separate Peace, The Catcher in the Rye. … She replied to my letters only once."

The teenage Ray has been used and discarded - he just doesn't understand that. But the whole experience gives him insight into what his friend Marjorie endures, and he is determined after his father's funeral to discover what happened in their youth.

As social class and wealth still wield immense power and no doubt always will, Providence Island is well worth reading, not only for its critical perspective, but also for its trenchant descriptions of young people trying to find their place in the world.

Candace Fertile teaches English at Camosun College in Victoria BC.

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