Rating: 3.5 stars
Buy Link:
Amazon | iBooks | Amazon UK
Length: Novel

 

Mark is a teacher at Sawyer College, located in Ohio. It’s a prestigious institution where the students are rich — often very rich — and the professors … not so much. It’s a college of polite colorism, where the dean’s parties host very white professors (and the token black woman fighting for tenure) who barely notice the Mexican staff serving them. While teaching, Mark is also writing a book about gay murderers. Not so much the crimes they committed, but how those crimes, committed by gay men, were reported, how they were spoken of then and now. He teaches his students about The Talented Mr. Ripley, a story in which a poor young man becomes obsessed with a rich man, going so far as to befriend him … and then kill him.

It’s in his class that Mark meets Tyler, a young man with golden hair who Mark can’t get out of his thoughts. Tyler, careless and brilliant, speaking up in class only that once and never again, and yet whose papers speak to Mark’s own heart. Bored with his boyfriend, tired of his quiet life, Mark wants to be part of the bright, vibrant world Tyler seems to live in. And when Tyler leans in for a kiss, how is Mark to ever refuse? He knows the risks; professors have been fired for just this thing, but Mark has to have this, and so long as Tyler doesn’t say no … he can.

Providence is a book full of questions: Is Tyler a mastermind or an innocent victim? Does Mark love Tyler, want to own him, or become him? Mark is proven again and again to be an unreliable narrator, oblivious to the people around him and to their emotions and thoughts. He is both indifferent and certain at the same time that he knows all he needs to know. And even at the very end, who can you really trust between Tyler and Mark? As Tyler said, he realized early on that Mark saw him as someone needing saving, and so he performed that role. He was using Mark, but to what end, and how much? Was it the excitement of sleeping with a professor, someone he could manipulate more easily, or was he just lonely, reaching out to another lonely person?

The book has no answers to any of these questions. And that might leave some people unsatisfied, and I get it if they feel that way. But this book was never about the big twist or the clever reveal for me. Personally, I think any answer the author could have given would have been worse than the dangling threads, limiting and defining the events in a way that gives all of the questions pat answers and cheap resolutions. Instead, the book seems to be waiting for the reader to decide what they think, what they want to be the answer, and I appreciate that. It’s a hard task, to write a book with no ending and yet to end it well, and in such a way that a reader has to make a choice … and it leaves me irked that I didn’t like the book enough to want to answer those questions.

I think that’s mostly because I didn’t like Mark, but presumably that’s by design. He’s a complicated man, shallow and plodding, with only his good looks to recommend him. Bailing on his boyfriend again and again because he’s bored, disinterested, unwilling to be bothered. Mark’s one friend at work, and the one black woman on staff, Safie, is performing epic feats of emotional labor, forever chipping away at him, receiving nothing in return but the disdainful attention of someone who takes her friendship for granted. And when she needs Mark, he’s too busy doing … nothing much to reach out to her. Until, that is, he needs something from her.

Mark is, by all accounts, a brilliant and gifted professor. He’s clever and insightful, but only on paper. In his own head, the place we are joining him for this book, he’s a schmuck, and a whiny, boring one. I’ve said before that I enjoy difficult characters, because it takes skill for an author to make them human rather than a caricature, to make them sympathetic, to make them in such a way that you want to shake them and make them better because you care about them. Here, with Mark, I just wanted to get away from him. The character is well written, but he’s also a character I’m glad to be done with.

The book only shows Tyler through Mark’s eyes. He’s young, gorgeous in the way an animal is — fluid muscle, glowing vitality, action and grace and passion. Mark stalks Tyler’s Facebook, thinks about him constantly, thinks about being with him, touching him, having him .. and then ignores it, only to be drawn back again and again by the object that is Tyler. When Mark finally has him, when Tyler finally stands still long enough for Mark to try to catch his interest, Mark is as flustered as a kid with their first crush. And it’s clear Mark falls hard and fast for the idea of Tyler — always the idea — rather than the boy he’s fucking. He listens as Tyler talks about anything and everything, but never asks a question. It’s Tyler who decides every action, ever encounter, because Mark is, as ever, as always, a passive witness to his own life.

I never felt the urge to shake Mark. I never felt sympathy for him. I was tired of being in his company; I wanted to see anyone else — be it Safie, his boyfriend Stephen, or even his coworker Colin, who all seemed more vibrant and interesting. But that’s the point, I suppose. It’s just hard for me to enjoy a character study when I find it so hard to connect with the character in question, so hard to feel any interest in his self-inflicted pain. Again, technically, it’s a decent book. It’s just not the book for me.

However, that doesn’t mean that this book might not work for someone else. I admit my reviews are highly, blatantly subjective. The author’s writing style is smooth, their storytelling is good, the pace was a touch on the slow side for me, with some interludes that just felt like giant rocks were dropped down to establish a setting already in place. I’d be very curious to see more of the author’s other works … just as long as Mark is left in this one.