A strange boy from San Diego enters the life of a Canadian girl in 1950 and leaves it in 1961, inspiring a lifelong fascination.
Robertson’s (Wallflowers, 2014) debut novel is narrated by Willa, who is 9 when her story begins on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia. This is when she meets Patrick, one of two brothers who arrive with their father from San Diego for a visit. The father is dating her mother, the older brother and Willa’s sister are heading for romance, and she is drawn immediately into the weird, faintly perverted aura of the younger boy, Patrick, who gets her involved in humiliating, painful, and/or frightening episodes every time he appears, variously involving a stinging jellyfish, an eviscerated rabbit, and his genitals. Willa is a Didion-esque narrator, and the novel has a strong memoiristic feel: “Everything I knew of California I learned when I was twelve—the blue desert, Valencia oranges, the smell of hot tires, my sister in an Orlon sweater, the woman who stole a plastic flamingo from our hotel, the surf gods, egg rolls from Fat City, sand in my swim costume, all the convertibles on Ocean Beach that parked to watch the sun duck under.” By 1957, at the wedding of their sister and brother, Willa and Patrick are locked into their dark dynamic. She watches him with another girl in a car, pushing “his finger inside her underwear,” looking “like a dentist probing for a cavity.” Then he dances with Willa, tracing her upper lip with his fragrant finger. The climactic encounter occurs in ’61, on a sailing trip with their married siblings down the coast of Baja California. Willa is in her second year at the University of Victoria; Patrick has graduated from Cornell; bad things will happen. A final section set in 2001 reflects on the impact of these long-ago incidents on Willa’s life.
Elegant sentences in search of a plot wander through a series of dramatic incidents and reflections on the power of the male gaze.