Romance Island

March 20, 2007

I imagine that Zona Gale had fun writing Romance Island. Unfortunately, Gale’s idea of fun consists mainly of long winded descriptions of indefinable feelings and repeated assertions that love is cooler than an island full of fabulous food and clothing where people can vanish into the fifth dimension at will. I’ve never been in love, so I guess I can’t really judge, but I would venture to disagree. Which would you rather be, the princess of a secret island with submarines and airships (in 1906) living in a nifty castle on a mountain with rooms full of treasure and a crypt, or the wife of a reporter living in an apartment in New York? To be fair, the reporter is independently wealthy, and has a yacht and a manservant named Rollo who speaks in aphorisms, but still.

The reporter is St. George, who, three months before the start of the novel, inherited a fortune or something, enabling him to quit his job at the New York Evening Sentinel and buy a yacht. I refuse to comment on the symbolism of his name.

Anyway, he kind of misses the newspaper office, and one evening he invites all his former coworkers over for dinner. His best friend, Toby Amory, is working on a story about a mulatto woman who attempted to stab Miss Holland, an heiress, and who now does not seem to be able to speak. St. George thinks this sounds awfully exciting, and he ends up getting Chillingworth, the editor, to let him take over Amory’s job for a week while Amory borrows St. George’s yacht.

St. George visits the woman in a mental institution, and although she doesn’t speak to him, she does write down an address for him and labels it “Tabnit”. Instead of going directly there, St. George goes to see Miss Holland and her aunt, Mrs. Hastings, and brings them with him. He falls in love with Miss Olivia Holland at first sight, or so I was forced to assume. I mean, he seems to like her very much when she leaves New York, but by the time he follows her he’s head over heels, and it’s never explained. It’s okay, though. It’s not like it wasn’t obvious he was going to fall in love with her anyway.

So “Tabnit” turns out to be Prince Tabnit of Yaque, an island which was founded by a group of Phoenicians or something way back in biblical times. Since then, the inhabitants of Yaque have become a tremendously advanced civilization, with five dimensions within their reach and twelve colors in their spectrum. Unfortunately, six months or so before the story starts, their king died with no heirs and there was a bit of a succession crisis. Prince Tabnit was one of the candidates for the throne, but the people of Yaque ended up deciding to pick up the nearest shipwrecked castaway and make him their king.

The nearest castaway happened to be Otho Holland, Olivia’s father. He ruled over them quite happily for three months or so, and then he disappeared, along with Yaque’s “Hereditary Treasure”. Prince Tabnit explains all this over tea, and by the end of the meal, Olivia has declared her intention to go to Yaque to look for her father. So she and Prince Tabnit and Mrs. Hastings and her lawyer Mr. Frothingham and his daughter Antoinette go off with Tabnit in his submarine.

Then Jarvo and Akko show up. They’re two guys from Yaque with prehensile feet and news that Prince Tabnit has evil intentions towards Olivia.

Okay, I could go on with the recap, and talk about Tabnit’s evil schemes and how he thinks of life as an intaglio of his own design, and how Amory has a thing for Antionette Frothingham, and how King Otho has sort of been hiding in plain sight. But really? Not a lot happens. We do, however, learn why Jarvo and Akko have prehensile feet. And then all the Americans leave Yaque never to return, and Olivia and St. George get engaged.

All in all, kind of a frustrating book. It wasn’t nearly as exciting as it looked at the beginning, and Jarvo and Akko and Rollo the valet could only do so much for it.

One comment

  1. I just went through the back catalogue of all Zona Gale I could find online and… yeah, this one was not good. However! Her essay in the Novel of Tomorrow book explains to some degree *why* she is such a fruit loop here. Or possibly just reiterates it, actually, rather than explaining it; I don’t know how much light is actually shed on the topic, because she’s not terrifically subtle in Romance Island and she’s not terrifically clear in the essay…

    From the rest of her books, I kind of loved the ludicrously sentimental (but c’mon, an ultra-mushy in-love-with-each-other long-married elderly couple are the main characters! how often do we get that?) book “The Loves of Peleas and Etarre.” The Friendship Village books are, I think, also reasonably palatable; they’re strung-together collections of short stories on the same general “small town has some problems and then a mostly-happy ending” theme as A Christmas Story. She also wrote two less-chipper novels, “Miss Lulu Bett” and “Birth”, in the interwar period (as seems typical for “life is futile and people will mostly misunderstand each other and coincidences will work against you rather than saving your bacon” books from otherwise-happy-ending authors?); they’re not miserable all the way through and they do end on “up” notes, but still: lots of unhappy characters who have just… missed out on things.

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