The Other Mother by Rachel M. Harper

“Yes, of course. It is always him they want to know about—the father, not the other mother.”

The Other Mother is an affecting and nuanced multigenerational tale unearthing long-buried family histories. The author’s interrogation of motherhood challenges the heteronormative archetype of the nuclear family, as she focuses on the experiences, choices, and parenting of single-women and same-gender couples. Throughout the course of the novel, readers will witness how parental love is not dictated by blood and the complexities that arise from that. Within these pages, motherhood is a multivalent term, one that changes from mother to mother. The two mothers that are at the chore of the story are flawed and imperfect individuals, who make mistakes believing that they are doing what’s best for their child. The author however is never not sympathetic towards them, nor does she condone their behaviour, allowing instead her other characters within her narrative, and readers as well, to reach their own conclusion about some of their choices. We are made to understand their states of mind, the events leading to them making those choices or the circumstances that aggravated certain ‘bad’ habits. The ‘democratic’ structure of the novel allows for all of the people connected to Jenry Castillo to be given a perspective, to give their side of the story and the rift between his two families, the Pattersons’ and the Castillos’.

“What Jenry does know is that he doesn’t belong here, which is how he’s felt about almost every place he’s been. Call it the mark of illegitimacy. But somehow this campus feels different. He’s come here to find something; more specifically, to find someone, which alone gives his presence a purpose. He has come to find his father.”

The narrative opens with Jenry starting his 1st year at Brown University after earning a music scholarship. Jenry was raised by his mother, Marisa, a nurse. While thanks to his grandparents he feels a connection to his Cuban heritage, neither they nor Marisa can fully understand his experiences as the only Black kid in his neighbourhood or fill the absence of his father, Jasper, who died when he was two. He has learnt that his paternal grandfather, Winston Patterson, is none other than a renowned professor of African American history at Brown, so once on campus Jenry sets out to find him, wanting to know more about the kind of person Jasper was. When he does speak to Winston, the encounter is far from the bittersweet reunion between two estranged family members. Winston seems not particularly interested or surprised by his estranged grandchild’s existence, and is unwilling to reveal more about Jasper. In fact, he asks why Jenry is so focused on Jasper when it was his sister, Juliet, who was involved with Marisa. Upon learning this Jenry is shocked and confused, angry at Marisa for having hidden the truth from him, and unsure what it even means that at one point in his life he had two mothers. The following sections, focusing on Marisa, Juliet, Jasper, Winston, and Victor, Jenry’s maternal grandfather, give us a retrospective of what occurred between Marisa and Juliet, their love story and the eventual dissolution of their relationship. We know from the start that Marisa took Jenry away from Juliet without any warning, leaving her with no way of contacting them. Since then Juliet has struggled with addiction and has only in recent years been able to find a stable relationship and job. Her career as a musician seems to have gone astray soon after Marisa left, leaving Juliet bereft and alone. And what role did Winston and Victor play in their daughters’ stories? Both men disapproved of their relationship and their ‘unconventional’ family, but, did they eventually try to do what’s right by them and Jenry?
I really appreciated the uneasy questions this narrative raises in terms of doing right by others and yourself. If you do something terrible (whether it is taking them away from a parent, pressuring them academically, or forcing them to deny who they are) but you have convinced yourself it is the best thing for your child, can you and should you be forgiven?
The narrative shows the many ways in which parents hurt their children out of ‘love’ or because they are unable to accept them and their choices, without exonerating them or villainizing them. Other characters may blame them but thanks to the book’s structure we can’t really favour one perspective over another. If anything, the author is able to show the justifications and fabrications some of the characters make in order to justify to themselves, and others, their actions. I appreciated how imperfect and messy the characters were and the different forms of love we see in this story. The author captures the longing, heartache, and regret experienced by her characters in a melodious prose.

“The loss of him fills her body, courses through her veins. And now, as her memories replay over and over, she can’t help but feel it all—the sadness, the loss, the love she had and perhaps still has for him—flowing into her limbs, making her skin twitch, her fingers ache, till it spills from her eyes as tears.”

The uneasy character dynamics that are at play within the story were deeply compelling and enabled the author to incorporate larger discussions on gender, sexuality, race, class, motherhood, cultural and generational differences. Additionally, grief underlines much of the narrative. It may be grief at the death of a loved one (Jasper) or grief resulting from physical and emotional separation (Jenry being taken away from Juliet, the unbridgeable rift between Marisa and her mother, the distance between Juliet and Winston and eventually Jenry and Marisa). I loved much of the story and found myself particularly moved by Juliet’s portion. The author beautifully articulates her sorrow, without romanticizing her struggles or painful experiences. Initially, I found myself also feeling sympathetic towards Marisa, despite her choice to take Jenry away from Juliet. We see how unrequited love and rejection can eventually alienate you from the ‘object’ of your desire. But then in the latter portion of the book, any affection I held for Marisa perished when she behaves in a really crappy and unfair way to her son. Jenry, upon learning that she had lied to him for years, is obviously angry and upset. She is initially shown to be desperate to make amends, and I really felt for her especially given what she is going through. But then when she eventually reaches Jenry she tries to force him into forgiving her by threatening to make him leave Brown, saying that this place had clearly ‘changed’ him and he’s clearly not ready or something…and cristo dio. Wtf?! What a fcking stronza. Really. When she said that sht and the narrative glosses over it I just could not move past it. It infuriated me beyond measure and soured the remainder of my reading experience. Additionally, there was a predictable soap-opera reveal that was hinted at earlier on that just made me roll my eyes. The ending sequence was tonally a lot different from the narrative so far and struck me as mawkish and really jarring.

But hey ho, I did love most of the book so I would still recommend it to others. If you are a fan of multigenerational sagas, such as the ones penned by Brit Bennett, Ann Patchett, and Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, or authors such as Hala Alyan, Jhumpa Lahiri, Kirstin Valdez Quade, Danielle Evans, and Francesca Ekwuyasi, you should definitely not miss The Other Mother.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

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The Women Could Fly by Megan Giddings

“This is the story of the witch who refused to burn. Some people said that there was power in her blood, a gift from her ancestors that she could endure.”

Megan Giddings’s sophomore novel is highly evocative of those The Handmaid’s Tale inspired dystopias where readers are presented with a near-future where women—sometimes men—live in authoritarian societies where they have limited rights and freedoms and are under near-constant surveillance. When Women Could Fly does offer a more topical take on this genre, especially with what is going on with abortion laws in the States, and although the reality it presents us with is embedded with fantastical elements, reading this story still sent a chill up my spine. While this has been also compared to Shirley Jackson and Octavia Butler, personally I don’t quite see it. If anything Giddings’ novel was highly reminiscent of those early 2010s YA, where the female protagonists are often forced into marriage (this is not meant as a ‘snub’ as i remember being quite into them). Expect that Giddings’ more mature tone allows for more in-depth conversations about gender and racial discrimination, female bodily autonomy, reproductive justice, surveillance and privacy, and the ye old fear of that which is deemed ‘other’. The imagery and aesthetics did make me think of several horror films produced by A24, and part of me believes that maybe this story would translate better to the screen. That is not to say that it was badly written, far from it. However, several lacunae in the world-building really took me out. Additionally, the pacing was a bit all over the place, particularly in the latter half of the novel.

In this America witch trials are still a thing. To prevent women from becoming witches, the government closely monitors them, watching for any signs of ‘witchy’ stuff. While false allegations are punishable by law, most girls and women live in fear of being accused. The government also requires women over 30 to either marry (a man) or lose almost all forms of autonomy (such as having a job). Some women do choose this option, and are registered as witches, and (if memory serves) under house arrest. Women of color, Black women in particular, are even more heavily scrutinized, especially those like Josephine Thomas, whose own mother is believed to have been a witch after she ‘vanished’ overnight. Josephine, now 28, is ready to accept that her mother will never come back. Josephine has come to resent her mother: for leaving, for leaving without her, and for making her ‘suspect’ in the eyes of the government. With her 30th birthday approaching Jo finds herself forced to consider her options. She doesn’t want to give up her job at the museum, where they are actually somehow allowed to have an exhibition by a verified witch. She is seeing this guy who she kind of likes but feels frustrated by the societal pressure to marry him. Her father, a white guy, is not particularly close to her and he offered little support when Jo was under investigation after the disappearance of his wife.
The narrative opens with Jo having decided to officialize her mother’s death. Her mother’s will includes some specific directions she is to follow in order to then access her inheritance. Jo follows said directions and finds herself coming into contact with a reality that is very different from her own one.

I really liked the writing style, and the ambivalence permeating much of Jo’s narration, in particular in moments when she thinks of her mother or of the way women are treated. I also liked some of the vaguer aspects of this ‘reality’, and I was briefly at times reminded of Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘what-ifs’, where he very much focuses on a group of people and is able to capture their experiences without delving into many details about their world and the society they live.
Alas, here the author is inconsistently vague. We will learn that other countries have possibly banned witch-hunts/the monitoring of women but that’s more or less it when it comes to the outside world (“I cry sometimes thinking about how we’re the only developed country to let this still happen.”). Why don’t more women leave the States? Are they banned from doing so? The story may mention this but so briefly that it didn’t really sink in. In addition, we have a registered witch being allowed to have her art in a gallery… which threw me off a little. Why would the government allow her to do that? Her installations and pieces are fairly unsettling and very ‘witchy’…wouldn’t they worry about this being some sort of witch propaganda? The author is also quite inconsistent when it comes to lgbtq+ visibility and rights. In this extremely authoritarian and deeply conformist country, people identify as lgbtq+…Jo included. She’s bi and ‘out’. Her father isn’t keen on it and she knows she will be unable to marry anyone other than a man but I still wasn’t sure of the kind of rights lgbtq+ ppl had. Jo refers to herself as cis and acknowledges that the whole “women=maybe witch” thing her country has going on excludes ppl who identify outside of the gender binary…but we don’t really go into much depth with that other than once Jo mentions that gay men are sometimes suspected of being witches…it also seemed weird that such an oppressive and reactionary government would ‘allow’ ppl to openly identify as lgbtq+. Still, we do get Angie’s perspective on this, who is using a matchmaker who specializes in arranging safe marriages for gay women (for example by choosing gay men as their spouses).
Also, how are YA books with dragons in them being allowed to be published in a country where magic is considered a real threat? Surely the fantasy genre would be banned?!

minor spoilers:
When we reach the halfway point, the story offers us insight into a community that is very different from the one Jo grew up in and once again I found myself having more questions, and the answers we do get didn’t entirely satisfy. The narrative suggests that they have been undetected due to ‘magic’ but I didn’t quite buy that. It also seemed weird that they would not reach out to more ppl. Jo’s motivations in the latter half of the novel were not entirely believable and the ending felt kind of rushed.

Still, despite my issues with the world-building (one too many holes, inconsistent) and plot (which is slow, fast, slow, fast, and with a few situations that clearly just exist to further the plot, even when they are not entirely convincing) I loved the author’s writing style, the parallelism between Jo’s world and our world (“Sometimes, people say Isn’t it lucky to be a woman now?”…kid you not a male colleague of mine said something along these lines and followed with “it is men who have it hard nowadays”), the use of witchcraft as a metaphor for ‘otherness’, the soft magic, the aesthetics, and the friendship between Jo and Angie.
The author does pose some interesting questions about the ‘cost’ of personal freedom, and throughout the narrative she interrogates themes such as love, equality, guilt, and forgiveness. Additionally, I appreciated the nuanced mother-daughter relationship. Part of me was annoyed at the romance subplot, which in my opinion takes away from ‘page time’ from non-romantic relationships. The writing has this hypnotic, remote yet sharp, quality to it that brought to mind Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid. Giddings is certainly able to articulate thorny and ambiguous thoughts and feelings with clarity, however, she also allows Jo to retain a certain air of impenetrability. Jo’s introspections were compelling and I was thoroughly spellbound by her voice. Like I said, the world-building and plot did get in the way of my totally loving this but to be honest I can see myself re-reading this and not minding as much.

Some quotes:

“But there was always an objectiveness that insulated me, always allowed me to stay cool and defuse the situation. It was better for everyone if I remained at least six inches distant. A space far enough for me to evaluate, assess, and then fix things.”

“But all the magic in these museums is the magic of the dead—corpses and curses and in its own way reminding women that if there is anything inexplicable in the world, it is dangerous.”

“I had expected a tightening as I grew older; I would like what I liked and that was the essence of who I was. But my personality gets easily seeped now with new details. I read something new, I watch something new, I eat something new and the world feels again like a place where I want to stay.”

“Magic was everywhere. It felt like when you’re young and with your best friend in the world and you look at each other and feel as if you’re both the most attractive, interesting, fun people in the entire room. There’s nothing embarrassing about this confidence because it’s the truest thing and it lets you both be your best selves for hours.”

“For years, my mother had been a wound I could never fully stitch, one that when I was being honest with myself, I didn’t ever want to scab over, fade, disappear.”

“[My] mother’s absence had been—I was sure—the source of some of the biggest, ugliest parts of me. And because of all that empty space around her, because of time, because of sadness, I had idealized her, too.”

“What is it about love? Why does it make everything seem so important when most people give their love so carelessly to people, to pets, to objects that will never love them back?”

“What was it like to be loved in a way that felt immutable? To not be told I was loved, but to feel it, to see it most of the time?”

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼


Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

Perhaps I should have not read Goodbye, Vitamin on the heels of finishing Chemistry by Weike Wang, maybe then I would have found Khong’s novel to be more witty and original than I actually did. The scenario too brought to mind another novel I read fairly recently, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, which also centres on an Asian American woman in her 30s moving in back temporally with her parents because her father is showing signs of memory loss. Still, even if Goodbye, Vitamin didn’t quite strike me in the way Chemistry or even<a href="https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1682569828
Edge Case by YZ Chin (which is yet another similar read) it was by no means an unpleasant read. The humorous tone was fairly engaging and the complex father-daughter dynamic that is at the heart of this story was certainly poignant. The questions the narrative raises and tries to answer (what we owe to each other? what does it mean to care for someone? is forgiveness always possible?) were certainly thought-provoking and I also appreciated the author’s portrayal of love, break-ups, and illnesses, as well as her depiction of the every-day realities of looking after an ageing parent.

Characterized by an offbeat and occasionally surreal tone, Goodbye, Vitamin is narrated by Ruth, a thirty-something woman reeling from her recent break-up with her longtime partner. Add to that the fact that so far she’s been leading a rather directionless career and Ruth is far from okay. Her mother, who works full time, asks Ruth to move back home so that she can keep an eye on her father, a history professor whose Alzheimer diagnosis has resulted in his ‘temporary’ dismissal from his college. Ruth and her mother try to help him in the only ways they can: they give him supplements and vitamins, design an ideal diet with foods that have plenty of health benefits. Additionally, they try to be ‘stealthy’ about their efforts to look after him as he seems unwilling to admit that he is experiencing any of the symptoms related to Alzheimer. In an effort to make him feel normal again Ruth teams up with her father’s former students and organize unauthorized lessons.
Ruth’s ‘quirky’ narration did at times feel a bit heavy-handed and it seemed a bit of a stretch that all of the various characters would share the same silly & weird sense of humor. The bittersweet nature of the relationship between Ruth and her father was perhaps the strongest aspect of this novel. Her father is not a particularly likeable person to start off with but to see his ‘change’ through his daughter’s eyes definitely made me more sympathetic towards him. Part of me would have liked for Ruth’s mother to be in the picture more as her presence is often relegated off-page.
Despite the subject matter—Alzheimer’s, breakups—Goodbye, Vitamin makes for a breezy read. I look forward to reading more by this author.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob

“People always say time stands still, and it really is that, you know. You find the thing you love the most, and time will stop for you to love it.”

A few months ago I read and loved Mira Jacob’s Good Talk so I was quite looking forward to The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing as I happen to have a penchant for family dramas. And, at first, I was actually quite taken by it. The family dynamics Jacob sets up were complex & compelling and the ‘mystery’ surrounding Akhil’s death, Amina’s career change, and Thomas’ ‘weird’ behaviour, well, they moved the narrative forward.
The story alternates between chapters set in the 90s where we become acquainted with Amina, a wedding photographer who receives a worrying call from her mother, Kamala, about Thomas, Amina’s father. According to Kamala, Thomas is unwell. An anxious Amina flyers to her hometown where she learns that Thomas seems in perfect health. As days go by and after speaking to some of his father’s colleagues Amina is forced to recognise that her mother may not have been exaggerating after all. The other chapters instead give us insight into Amina’s childhood from a holiday gone awry that she took with her parents and brother to India to visit relatives to her experiences growing up in New Mexico. In these chapters, we see a lot of Akhil and come to learn of the events that led to his death.
As I says, initially I found Jacob’s storytelling engaging. Amina was a flawed but sympathetic main character and the various secrets related to her family added a layer of intrigue to her narrative. Things sadly fell apart midway through. I found the story much too repetitive. By then I’d already guessed what had happened to Akhil and what was going on with Thomas but the story keeps delaying these ‘reveals’. Large chunks of the story were just filler, often consisting of the same two or three characters having the same type of conversation or, more often than not, argument. Boy, do the characters in this story like to squabble. It just so happens that their fights did very little for me as it seemed to serve no purpose (we don’t gain much insight into those characters, nor does the fight further or add to the plot, nor does it drastically change things for anyone). Amina’s ‘photographer’ storyline was quite disappointing as Jacob doesn’t really delve into her photography that much. We learn of two ‘pivotal’ photos she’s taken and that’s it. I wanted more passion, more sections detailing her technique or what she feels towards photography (as Rachel Lyon does in her magnificent Self-Portrait with Boy, which also involves the photo of someone falling to their death…but unlike Jacob’s novel, it has depth). I didn’t understand why the characters behaved the way they did, nor did I really get the point of all the ‘sleepwalking’ and possible ‘hauntings’. Amina spends the majority of the whole novel wondering if her father is sick, when she has an answer the focus goes to her romance with a generic white man she knew during her teens, before presenting us with a rushed ending that is meant to provide some sort of answer/resolution for her dad’s situation…but doesn’t really.
I grew to dislike Amina, especially when she comes out with stuff like this: “Why does everyone think I dress like a man?” “Like a sandal. Or a flat.” “I just don’t like dresses. It’s not like I’m some transvestite.” (her response here makes no sense); or this “The blue button-down made her look like a high school lesbian” (this is the kind of remark that if its made by someone who like in amina’s case is not part of the lesbian nor lgbtq+ community…well); or this: “she remembered their first kiss, how strange and eager they had both been, like two mutes trying to describe a freak storm” (ugh).
After she shows up at her love interest’s place and they have sex initiated by her he comes up with this, “I think,” Jamie said that evening, his heart thundering under her ear, “you just raped me.”
to which she replies something along the lines of “you seemed into it”. Yikes.
The comments Amina makes about ‘lesbians’, ‘transvestites’, and ‘mutes’, well, they were completely unnecessary. Amina is presented to us as the ‘modern’ counterpart to her parents, someone who is relatable and isn’t necessarily interested in getting married. Except that she actually wants to but ‘trauma’ has made her believe she isn’t worthy and yadda yadda. What a clichè.
I didn’t care for the story’s melodramatic overtones. The whole thing surrounding Akhil’s death was just too OTT for me. He just wasn’t a particularly believable character and came across more like a caricature than anything else. Amina went from being a relatable character to someone I could not get behind. Later in the narrative, her cousin and alleged bff breaches her privacy and trust. Instead of calling her out, the narrative makes her actions seem good because Amina’s ‘true work’ can finally be celebrated. Instead of giving her hell Amina just lets her friend manipulate her into going along with this.
Amina’s parents were portrayed as very volatile, and their constant sniping, wild mood swings, and erratic behaviour made it hard for me to get to grips with them. Especially when what they said or did was played up for laughs.
I’m sure other readers won’t be as offended as I was by some of the content in this novel so I recommend you read more positive reviews before making your mind up. Given how much I liked Good Talk, it is safe to say that I am deeply disappointed by Jacob’s debut novel.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Dog Flowers: A Memoir by Danielle Geller

Dog Flowers is a relentlessly unsparing and depressing account of a dysfunctional family grappling with addiction, trauma, mental illness, and abuse. This memoir opens with Danielle Geller’s mothers’ death. Geller’s mother was homeless when she died of withdrawal from alcohol, and Geller is forced to return to Florida to sift through her mother’s possessions. Using her archivist skills she ends up reaching out to her mother’s side of the family, aside she’s been estranged from, and visits them in their home in the Navajo Nation, where she learns more about her mother’s history and her Navajo heritage.
Alongside these sections that follow Geller as an adult, there are chapters delving into her disrupted childhood, which often honed in on a particular episode.
After her parents, both addicts split up, Geller and her sister go on to stay with their father. Their father, who is white, is an alcoholic whose emotional abuse of his children goes on to become physical when he assaults Geller’s sister. Geller recounts with disturbing clarity his erratic behaviour, for example of the way he would harangue them, telling them the same tired stories from his own childhood and adulthood, fixating on the wrongdoings he’s been subjected to. Although it’s been years since I’ve shared a roof with my father, reading Dog Flowers was an uncomfortable reminder of just how overwhelming it can be to have (and live with) a parent with substance abuse issues. And boy, does Danielle Geller capture how devastating it is on a young person to be exposed to this kind of chaotic and vitriolic presence. It was distressing just how much of my father I recognised in Geller’s own one so reading these sections was by no means an easy activity. Geller and her sister eventually end up in the custody of their grandmother but things take a downward turn as Geller’s sister begins to ‘act out’.
Geller’s prose is unsentimental and matter-of-fact, even when discussing traumatic episodes. In many ways, this memoir reads like a long list of tragedies. Geller’s mother, father, and sister all struggle with addiction and mental illness. Geller is exposed from an early age to emotional, physical, and self-abuse. Neither of her parents is capable or willing to look after her and her sister, and their attempts at sobriety and lucidity are short-lived. If anything, their attempts at a ‘normal’, or at least ‘stable’, life just give Geller (and us the readers) false hopes as they inevitably fall off the wagon. Time and again Geller has to look after them, often with little choice on her part as they emotionally manipulate her into helping them out. All of this sadly hit too close to home. When I saw some reviewers expressing surprise or shock that Geller would not cut ties with her ‘toxic’ family, well, I can’t help but think that their family situation may not be as dysfunctional as Geller’s. There are people out there who are able to cut off ties with their abusive parents or siblings. But, more often than not, you are unable or unwilling to cut someone off. Especially if you start questioning whether many of their ‘vices’ stem from trauma or mental illness. And again, hope. You hope that they will get clean, get a steady job, or lead a ‘normal’ life. And, in Geller’s case, well, all of her closest relatives have struggled with addiction. Is she going to cut them all off?!
It was saddening to see that Geller’s relationship with her Navajo side of the family is far from idyllic or rosy. While her connection to her cousin struck me as moving, her relationship with her aunt was saddening indeed as she is revealed to be a woman who is full of anger and sadly seems to turn this anger towards her relatives.
There is a lot of pain in this memoir. Geller captures with gut-wrenching clarity the realities and aftermath of a childhood marred by neglect, abuse, addiction, and trauma. Geller’s forays into her own past are brutally honest and are not accompanied by ‘moral’ lessons or ‘wise’ insights into human nature. I appreciated Geller’s honest depiction of her family and, more importantly, herself.
While Dog Flowers deeply resonated with me, I did find its execution early on a bit clumsy. The author introduces too much too soon, and I wasn’t sure what had happened when. The ending too seemed a bit abrupt, and I would have appreciated more insight into Geller’s life (her friends, partners, work, etc..).
Nevertheless, I found this a powerful and piercing read. It is by no means an easy read and I did find much of what Geller recounted to be extremely distressing, then again, I was also able to relate to many of her experiences. I appreciated that she neither villainizes nor condone her parents nor her sister and that in delving into her past she tries to understand their motivations or states of mind, even if ultimately, much about their identities remains a mystery or incomprehensible to her.
Geller’s memoir is a haunting account of a family mired in pain. If you are looking for a challenging read, well, buckle up because Dog Flowers is it. Geller’s portrayal of her family disrupts the myth of the happy family and the widely held belief that parents love their children. While there is love in this memoir it is often obfuscated by years of self-destructing behaviour and or by hatred, sadness, and weakness.

my rating: ★★★½

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Faithful by Alice Hoffman

“You rescue something and you’re responsible for it. But maybe that’s what love is. Maybe it’s like a hit-and-run accident; it smashes you before you can think. You do it no matter the cost and you keep on running”

While not without its flaws, Faithful is a gem of a book. Alice Hoffman has crafted a heartfelt and ultimately uplifting coming-of-age. Faithful revolves around After being involved in a car crash that leaves her best friend comatose, Shelby Richmond, a teen from Long Island, is left bereft. Reeling from this loss Shelby is unable to resume her ‘ordinary’ life. After a suicide attempt and a stay in a mental institution where she experiences further trauma, she segregates herself into her parent’s basement. She shaves her head, ignores others, and spends most of her time getting high in an attempt to numb the guilt that gnaws at her. Her mother tries to reach out to her but Shelby has become convinced that she’s worthless and undeserving of love and forgiveness. She eventually becomes involved with Ben, a nerdy pot dealer who used to go to high school with her, who unlike others seems to accept this new version of her. Ben convinces Shelby to move with him to New York. In spite of her new surroundings and the distance between her and her best friend, Shelby cannot shake the by now deeply-ingrained belief that she’s undeserving of happiness. Her self-sabotaging is not easy to read about, but thanks to the clarity of Hoffman’s prose, I could always understand where Shelby was coming from and I did not feel frustrated by her low-self esteem and self-hatred. Shelby begins working at a pet store where she befriends one of her co-workers, Maravelle. Over the years she also grows close to Maravelle’s three kids, who experience struggles of their own. In New York Shelby also starts taking in rescued dogs which later on paves the way to her decision to become a vet. Shelby’s love life is complicated as she finds herself growing away from Ben and falling instead for a married man who is a walking talking red flag.

While the premise itself may not sound very original, Hoffman’s unembellished style is devoid of unnecessary sentimentalists, which makes those poignant moments and/or scenes all the more powerful. That the story takes place over the course of seven years or so makes Shelby’s character arc all the more authentic. She never completely gets over the accident nor does she completely forgive herself, however, she does, in time, stop punishing herself.
While readers are told—on more than one occasion—that Shelby hates herself, we soon realize that does not define her character. She certainly dislikes herself, but, she can be surprisingly tenacious and her dry humor is certainly amusing. The mistakes she makes along the way make her into a very relatable and realistic character. I loved Shelby’s snarky charm and her well-hidden kindness.

One of the book’s greatest strengths lies in its characters and Shelby’s various relationships with them. She forges new friendships and begins to see her parents and their marriage in a different light. The fragile bond she shares with her mother is touching and heartwarming. It is with the help of an unlikely cast of characters that Shelby is able to overcome her self-hatred. Slowly we see the connections she makes influence her: she becomes strong in order to help the ones she loves.
In her clear yet graceful prose, Hoffman depicts simple everyday life scenarios that can be at once moving and funny, from capturing silly moments between two ‘stoned’ friends to focusing on more emotional scenes such as a mother-daughter heart-to-heart. While Faithful begins with a terrible loss, Shelby’s past tragedies do not dominate her story. Yes, forgiveness and guilt play a big role in the novel, but, Faithful is also about hope and love (familial, platonic, romantic).

I do have a few minor criticisms. Shelby steals quite a few dogs. Yes, she steals them from people who were not abusing/neglecting them and no the narrative doesn’t demonise those responsible, however, it seemed a bit weird that she would keep coming across dogs in need of rescuing from bad owners. There are a few lines related to suicide, depression, mental disorders, that were a bit…icky, I guess. We then have this random guy who works at the hospital and refuses to help Shelby unless she promises to grow out her hair…which she does. And wow, now she’s pretty again. This had the same energy as a man telling you to smile more and you do and lo-and-behold your depression is cured. Great. Throughout the course of the novel, Shelby receives letters/messages from an unknown person. These messages at times seemed straight out of a self-help book. At other times they just puzzled me. They basically try to make Shelby ‘better’. Towards the end of the narrative, we meet the person behind these and I will say I did not approve of any of it. I would be wary of someone like that.

Nevertheless, despite these ‘flaws’, I was still able to fall in love with Hoffman’s storytelling. While it may not appeal to those who are looking for plot-driven stories or who aren’t keen on stories that are heavy on the telling, I found this to be a bittersweet noel about survivor’s guilt, trauma, forgiveness, and hope.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon

As per usual I was drawn to a book because I found its cover cute. The novel itself has plenty of cute moments, however, various elements prevented me from truly appreciating it.

Before her parents’ separation 17-year-old Evie Thomas was a lover of romance and a believer in happy-ever-afters. When she becomes aware that her dad not only cheated on her mum but left them to be with the ‘other woman’, well, she’s pretty shaken up by it. A newly disillusioned Evie decides to make the very dramatic gesture of getting rid of all of her romance books (i mean, really?). After dropping them off at a ‘little free library’ a mysterious old lady seemingly appears from nowhere and encourages her to take a book titled Instructions for Dancing, a book about ballroom dancing. From then on Evie has the ability to see how peoples’ romances begun and how they will end. They just have to kiss in front of her and wham she gets a That’s So Raven vision that shows her a fast-forwarded version of the couple’s relationship, from their first meeting to their breakup/separation. Her new gift seems to confirm that, as she feared, in real life love always ends in heartbreak (lil’ bit ridiculous, i know…).
She eventually returns the manual for dancing to La Brea Dance. Once at this dance studio she just happens to come face-to-face with the kind of heartthrob guy who is very much the real-life embodiment of the LI in a romance (“For a second, I feel like I’m a character in one of my old romance books. Raising a single eyebrow is such a Classic Romance Guy Characteristic.”). The guy, X, and Evie end up competing as a pair for a dance competition in the Amateur Under 21 category with the intention of promoting the studio.
As you can imagine, in spite of Evie vowing that she’s done with love and romance and would certainly not fall for X because “Tall, hipster-hot and in a band? I mean, he’s the definition of a heartbreaker, right?”, the more they practice together, the closer they get.
The story focuses on their romance and on Evie’s feeling conflicted about love and romance. While the angst is at times outweighed by the sweeter moments, overall, I could have done with the elements of melodrama (between evie & x, between evie & her ‘friends’, between evie & her dad). I do feel bad for not being able to write a more positive review but I’m afraid that honesty always wins out in my reviews so I will be detailing all of the reasons why I was unable to like this novel. If this book happens to be on your radar or on your TBR pile I recommend you check out some more positive reviews.
Here are a few of the things that dampened my enjoyment of this book, SPOILERS BELOW:

The Magical Element
What was that all about?! At times the story seems to forget all about Evie’s ability to see how other peoples’ romantic relationships start and end. These glimpses into a couple’s story give us very incomplete visions of their relationship (let alone who they are). The visions were jarring, something that stood out against an otherwise realistic & contemporary YA backdrop. Maybe had they remained one of the main preoccupations of the narrative they would have not felt so out of place but as I said mentions and scenes featuring Evie’s power remained very inconsistent. There’s a lot about them in the first few chapters where Evie is immediately able to establish that her visions are real. And that they only serve as a way to add more angst to her character. You see, now she has proof that love is fake and true romance doesn’t exist. It just so happens that, except for one couple towards the end, all of the couples she has visions of break up/separate.

Storyline
This ties to the 1st point. I would have liked the storyline to be more consistent. At first, we get a lot about her visions and her ‘i don’t believe in love anymore’ act, before switching to the dancing side of things, before honing in on her romance with X and her arguing with her friends. Personally, I would have liked more family dynamics. She hates her dad because he cheated on her mom, which is fair enough, but that this made her go through such a dramatic ‘i’m getting rid of all of my romance books/love doesn’t exist/in case you didn’t notice i’m a cynic now’, well, I just a hard time putting up with the same information being repeated over and over again. We get it, she feels betrayed by her dad (even if one could argue that, given that she’s nearly 18 and about to leave for college, she should not feel so involved in her parents’ relationship with each other…they are individuals of their own). She spends most of the novel dissing her dad and acting like he’s a monster before arriving at the classic plot-point where she tries to understand his perspective etc. Like, why did she have to be so immature? Her character development was predictable and her relationship with her parents would have benefited from more page-time. Her sister too! They were at one point close and yet for extended periods in the novel the sister is very much forgotten.
Speaking of family dynamics I would have loved to see more of x and his own family (as opposed to him mentioning a call or two from his dad). His grandparents (as far as i can recall) own the dance studio where they are training at and yet we don’t learn too much about their relationship with one another.
The point is that to me, the story meandered too much and had one too many unnecessary ingredients that ended up ruining the final product. We have Evie angst-ing over her parents’ break up and her dad cheating, we have the little library and the visions, we have the dancing sessions, we have her romance with X, we have the fights with her friends, we have miscommunication and reconciliation, and then, in a very soap-opera-ish move, bam, a tragic, but ultimately entirely forced bittersweet ending that teaches Evie a valuable life lesson (that just because something comes to an end does not make what came before worthless or any less meaningful). It all felt vaguely calculated and moralistic while at the same time, we get sudden changes in the storyline direction that amount to a less than cohesive story.

Evie
While not wholly unsympathetic, I found her selfish and immature to the point where I wanted to finish the book so I could get out of her head.
Supposedly 17, Evie is as emotionally mature as a 10-year-old. So, she caught her dad cheating and is traumatised, and begins acting like he’s some heinous human being and seems to believe that her mom owes her an explanation on why their marriage ended like this. Evie refuses to talk to him and acts like a brat. Her newfound attitude towards love and romance contributed to my impression of her being far too childish for her actual age. I would expect this over-the-top behaviour from a Disney movie, not a contemporary YA novel that is so clearly striving for depth and, visions aside, realism.
Her visions confirm her love ends in tears stance (i mean, at one point she throws at us the following: “Heartbreak = love + time”…which is something i could have written in one of my angsty poetry phases i went through aged 13 or so). Her dad betrayed her mom so it makes for her to seemingly overnight dismiss the notion of love/romance. I disliked how intrusive she was when it came to her parents’ relationship but I actively hated her behaviour towards two of her friends (one of whom is the nasty-type-friend, usually white and rich, that is all the rage in contemporary YA). They become a couple during the course of the novel (their personalities remain very much one-dimensional and their romance is rushed indeed) and Evie sees them kissing so of course she gets a vision that ends with them breaking up. She decides that they shouldn’t date because their eventual breakup will break their friendship group…so what does she decide to do? She refuses to see them! She isn’t all that concerned for them and their relationship, no, what worries is how their romance affects her. Selfish much? And the narrative goes on to prove that Evie was right and that of course, their failed romance ends up ‘breaking up’ their clique (really?).
It was just so frustrating to read her constant whining about her dad or making childish statements on how love ends in heartbreak yadda yadda. Why was it so hard for her to realise that yes, over the course of your life you will likely be with multiple people (as opposed to having only one ‘true love’)
And then her romance with X…yeah. At first, I found their interactions cute and understood to some extent why Evie was somewhat hesitant to admit her feelings towards him (after all, didn’t she swear off love?). But then, his presence in the novel amounts to serving as a plot device. He exists to teach Evie that it’s okay to fall in love and that even if said love ends with heartbreak that doesn’t change what came beforehand. What irked me the most is how his death is utilised by the narrative as the final step in Evie’s ‘learning to trust/love again’ arc. It wasn’t believable, it was clichéd and predictable from those rounds of questions earlier on in the story (where evie & co + X asks each other supposedly ‘philosophical’ questions that amount to: would you want to know when you are going to die or is true love real?). His death enables Evie to ‘grow’ as a character. That her reaction to learning of his approaching death is that of ghosting him…shit. Evie, sei una vera stronza. But it’s all good cause someone comes and tells her that she should not always be focusing on the end of things and think about the memories you make along the way (cheesy af). She apparently spends the next few months with him knowing that he will die but not telling him because earlier on he said that in a what-if scenario he would not want to know when he’s going to die….I mean really? She doesn’t even tell him to go to the doctor?

And they are meant to be teenagers?
The teenagers in this novel were so unbelievable. Their banter, as well as the ideas and opinions they express, were so vanilla. As I said earlier, with the exception of one or two lines here and there, these teens would have been better suited to a Disney movie. I guess they will appeal to fans of Netflix’s teen romance/drama/coming-of-age movie. The novel’s message too felt more in line with those kind of movies.

Self-Aware Romance (?)
Because Evie is a romance connoisseur she often lists tropes of the genre of says things on the lines of ‘it feels like i’m in one my old romance books’ or ‘he’s behaving like the LI in a romance’…yet, despite this supposed self-awareness the novel still implements many tired clichès and plot points.

The Dance Angle + Fifi
I liked the dancing sessions but after the halfway mark the dancing aspect of the novel seems largely sidelined in favour of angst between characters. Which, in my mind, is a pity. I would have preferred the novel to be more about dancing (esp. given that title + cover).
Fifi is X and Evie’s instructor and boy-oh-boy isn’t she a walking caricature. I struggle to understand why American authors (i’m looking at you casey mcquiston) write Eastern European characters this way. Not only do they have a thick accent but they have a funny way of expressing themselves and say borderline offensive/inappropriate things but it’s all good because accent + foreign = lol.

All in all, while now and again there were moments or exchanges that I found sweet (mostly between the main couple or evie and her bff martin), on the whole, I did not ‘vibe’ with it. I’m sure many others will love it and the points above are merely expressing my very subjective impressions of said book. Maybe the novel’s target demographic will have a more positive experience with it than I did.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby

aaaand Cosby’s done it again!

“Tears ran from his eyes and stung his cheeks. Tears for his son. Tears for his wife. Tears for the little girl they had to raise. Tears for who they were and what they all had lost. Each drop felt like it was slicing his face open like a razorblade.”

S. A. Cosby’s sophomore novel is just as gritty and gripping as his adrenaline-fueled debut, Blacktop Wasteland. Once again Cosby pairs unrelenting action with a razor-sharp social commentary, but instead of heists and drag races, this time around he presents his readers with an unputdownable tale of revenge.
In Razorblade Tears we follow ex-cons Ike and Buddy Lee. After their sons, a married couple, are murdered and the police’s investigation leads to no arrests or even suspects, these two fathers decide to take justice into their own hands. Ike, who is Black, has worked hard to leave his criminal past behind him, however, the grief and guilt he feels at his son’s murder push him to take up those ways again. Ike’s strained relationship with his son intensifies his need to make things right, or in this case, to find and kill those responsible for his murder. Buddy Lee, who is white and a wildcard, also had a difficult relationship with his boy, Derek. Despite their differences, Ike and Buddy Lee are united by this. Both men refused to accept their sons’ sexualities, and while they did not entirely break contact with them they refused to see them or when they did resorted to homophobic slurs or remarks.
It is certainly impressive that Cosby can make you care for and root for Ike and Buddy Lee. These two men have blood on their hands and a body count. In trying to ascertain who knows what about their sons’ deaths, they readily resort to violence and threats. Ike’s homophobia seems deeply ingrained and the way he thinks about his son’s ‘gayness’ is alarming indeed. Buddy Lee at times seems very much a ‘red-neck’, whose vocabulary is offensive indeed. And yet Cosby succeeded in making me feel 100% invested in them and their quest for vengeance. Part of it is that they are nuanced. They are not reduced to their negative characteristics, nor are their actions idealised or condoned.
Their dynamic was truly entertaining. To begin with, they don’t get on all that much but the closer they come to discovering the truth behind their sons’ murders, the more they grow accustomed to each other. While their banter is certainly amusing I found their more sombre exchanges to be even more compelling. For different reasons, they both pushed their sons away, and their shared guilt creates a sense of camaraderie between the two.

Brutal, raw, ultimately heart-rendering Razorblade Tears presents its readers with a tale that is propelled by grief, guilt, and revenge. In their pursuit for retribution, this unlikely duo comes head-to-head with a biker gang made up of white supremacists who may be involved in their sons’ murders.
Their investigation, which starts mildly enough before taking a sharp turn into edge-of-your-seat territory is punctuated by bullet-riddled showdowns and tense confrontations. Along the way, the two fathers are repeatedly made to confront their past—and current—actions, in an impossible attempt to reconcile themselves with their dead sons. I appreciated how unflinching Cosby is when addressing Ike and Buddy Lee homophobia and that their sons’ sudden deaths doesn’t immediately result in them saying ‘mea culpa I did wrong’. When questioning the people close to their sons or scouting their local hangouts, the duo comes face-to-face with lgbtq+ people and culture, which forces them to further interrogate their relationships with their sons, specifically the harm brought about by their own prejudices and unwillingness to accept them.

Cosby’s writing is phenomenal. His dialogues are snappy, his metaphors slick (and often surprisingly funny in a fucked up kind of way), his descriptions on point. The sense of place and atmosphere too are incredibly strong and perfectly complement the narrative’s gritty tone.

The one thing that kept this from a 5-star rating was the on-the-page presence of lgbtq+ characters. The boys are dead, the people our pair interrogates early on do not appear later on in the narrative, and the one character who could have had more of an actual role, well, when she finally does make an appearance this is a rushed one and she’s soon sidelined (with a cis character speaking on her behalf). Still I thought that his commentary and portrayal of marginalised people was spot on.

Razorblade Tears has consolidated my already high opinion of this author. His debut was no fluke and Cosby delivers an exhilarating tale that on one hand is violent and brutal, and on the other, well, it will break your heart. Cosby highlights so, if you are looking for a thriller with a bite, look no more.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

“To understand the world at all, sometimes you could only focus on a tiny bit of it, look very hard at what was close to hand and make it stand in for the whole.”

The Goldfinch is an emotional rollercoaster spanning 700+ pages and proof that literary lightning can indeed strike twice. Fully deserving of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Goldfinch is a triumph of a novel, one that I will have a hard time reviewing (so bear with me & my ramblings).
Donna Tartt seamlessly weaves together a Dickensian bildungsroman with a suspenseful and thrilling descent into the criminal underbelly of the art world (forgeries & thefts ahoy!) that boasts the same exquisite prose as her debut novel.
This Odyssean coming-of-age is narrated by Theo Decker. At 13 Theo lives alone with his mother after his father, a temperamental alcoholic, decided to take up and leave New York. After Theo gets in trouble at his school he and his mother are required to attend a ‘conference’. On the way there, the two end up in a museum, for what should have been a quick gander. When a bomb explodes in the museum many die, including Theo’s mother. Once Theo awakes from the explosion he comes across a dying old man who urges him to take Carel Fabritius’s ‘The Goldfinch’. Theo, probably suffering from a head concussion & shock, does as he’s bid, takes the painting.

“The painting had made me feel less mortal, less ordinary. It was support and vindication; it was sustenance and sum. It was the keystone that had held the whole cathedral up.”

When Theo is informed of his mother’s death he’s devastated. He has no idea where his deadbeat father is and his grandparents have made it clear that they aren’t keen on having him stay with them. Theo is temporarily placed in the custody of his childhood friend’s family, the Barbours, a hideously wealthy family. Later on, his father re-emerges and whisks away from New York to Las Vegas. Here Theo is left very much to his own devices, his father—who is clearly involved in some dodgy stuff—and his girlfriend do not seem particularly fond or interested in him and his upbringing. Theo becomes friends with Boris who, like him, does not have a stable home life. Together the two experiment with alcohol and drugs and commit petty crimes.
We follow Theo until his late-teens and then we encounter him again as a young(ish) adult who becomes entangled in some dangerous business that force him to fully confront the kind of person that he has become.

What to say? My heart went out to Theo. Yes, later in life he’s a bit of an asshole. That doesn’t cancel out all of his other qualities and complexities. Those sections recounting his boyhood are truly heartbreaking. The despair he feels at his mother’s death, the guilt, grief, longing, self-hatred, and loneliness that seem to punctuate his days are captured with exacting precision. His meditations on life, art, the people around him are striking, and I appreciated how nuanced a person he was. His relationship with Boris was one of the highlights of his narrative. It is incredible just how good Tartt is at making you care for people who are just not that nice. The dynamic between Theo and Boris is intense and messy (possibly more than a friendship?) and despite their different temperaments their similar circumstances and self-destructive tendencies fortify their bond (they are definitely good at enabling each other).

His mother’s death haunts Theo throughout his life, and we see just how his survivor’s guilt affects and influences him. To Theo, the painting of ‘The Goldfinch’ is irrevocably connected to her death, which is why he’s unable to part ways with it. He’s also hopelessly enamoured with Pippa, who he first glimpsed in the museum on that fateful day. She’s one of the few people who understands the guilt that plagues him so. Alas, he comes to idealise in a not so healthy way.
His story is filled with stops-and-starts, addiction and suicidal ideation & tendencies punctuate his life, and as an adult, he seems already to have taken a dubious path.

I loved this novel. Tartt’s writing is divine. Her prose is simultaneously elegant and exhilarating, her characterization, dialogues, descriptions, are all truly exemplary. She brings to life the people, places, and situations she writes of in a way that is almost too real, so that when forces outside of my control (the end of my lunch break or commute.) put an end to my reading time, well, it felt like a rude awakening.

As I said, this novel is long. A brick some would say (the hardback edition could seriously injure someone). Yet, I breezed through this. Not because it was easy reading, quite the contrary. Tartt’s erudite references and elaborate storytelling deserve attention and consideration, one cannot just rush their way through her books. And yet, I had a hard time putting this book down. Theo’s voice won me over so that I too found myself mirroring whatever he was feeling (usually sadness and or anxiety, yay). I didn’t want to let go of him, and I was actually sad once I reached the novel’s conclusion.
While Tartt doesn’t go light on her characters, I could tell just how much she cares for them. The people inhabiting her novels may not necessarily be good or kind but by the end, I always end up loving them (despite or because of their many many flaws). Even characters I want to hate with the whole of my being are not wholly unredeemable.

Tartt’s incisive reflections on human nature, life, grief, love, fate, art, death, struck me for their poignancy and thoughtfulness. The rich cast of characters is just as deserving of attention as Theo himself. Regardless of the part, they play in Theo’s life, whether they are a friend, acquaintance, or a complete stranger, they are depicted in such vivid detail that they do not feel like fictional characters but real people.
And Theo, ragazzo mio! On the one hand, many of his feelings, states of mind, motivations, fears & desires are rendered with clarity, on the other, well, the boy is not only traumatised but incredibly repressed and prone to self-deception. So, there are many moments when we cannot trust entirely his narration. His alcohol consumption and drug use also add a murky quality to certain events or portions of his story. Theo’s intentional and unintentional untrustworthiness, in many ways, added an element of ambiguity to his narration and has us relying, more often than not, on other characters in order to discern the truth about certain people/events.
I was captivated by Theo’s story, the many lows and few highs of his adolescence and adulthood, and by the motifs dotting his narrative. The novel is also full of juxtaposition: the classic vs modern references, the bustling streets of New York, always buzzing with activity, vs the desolate landscapes of Las Vegas, the Barbours’ apartment with Theo’s father house. Like TSH, one of the novel’s main concerns is beauty (the power that beautiful things have on us, the way we feel about that which is beautiful to us, the things we are willing to do for beauty or to have what we think beautiful).

Beautiful, moving, wonderfully chaotic, a work of art. The Goldfinch is all of these things and so much more.

ps: curiously enough the first time I read it I only gave it 3 stars…and I can’t really explain why this time around I loved it so much that even days later I find myself thinking about Theo & Boris.

my rating: ★★★★★

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Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin


That I choose to re-read this confirms that I do indeed have masochistic tendencies.

“I did not want him to know me. I did not want anyone to know me.”

In a striking prose, James Baldwin unfurls a disquieting tale of cowardice and self-deception. In many ways, Giovanni’s Room reads as a confession of sorts, even if our narrator does like to deny his own culpability.
This short novel is set in 1950s Paris when David, an American ex-pat, is idling away his time, drinking and partying with people he generally looks down upon, in an effort not to keep at bay thoughts about his past or future. The girl he is sort of seeing is away in Spain so an unsupervised and penniless David begins to frequent an acquaintance of his, Jaques, an older gay man who he finds somewhat repulsive but is happy to exploit. One day the two find themselves in a local haunt bar where they meet Giovanni, the new barman. While David seems initially unwilling to act on his impulses, he becomes involved with Giovanni and the two begin living together in Giovanni’s grubby apartment. Within these walls, David feels oppressed and constricted by an identity he is unwilling and or unable to accept. The American vision of masculinity and normalcy his father and his upbringing have inculcated in David an uncompromising notion of manhood. While he clearly desires Giovanni he cannot articulate his feelings towards him, as to do so would be to embark on a path of no return. When Hella, his sort-of girlfriend, returns to Paris, David is desperate to leave behind Giovanni and the kind of lifestyle he associates with Jaques and his circle, even if it means denying himself the person he actually desires.

While the narrative does deal with love, it is not a love story. This novel is as romantic as say Madame Bovary (that is to say, not at all). More often than not David seems to resent Giovanni and is repulsed when glimpsing his vulnerabilities. Most of the characters inhabiting this story are either unlikable or straight-up grotesque. In a way, this novel reminded me of Death In Venice. We have a main character who seems to perceive his surroundings as being sinister, alienating. David’s vitriol towards those who frequent Guillaume’s bar certainly points to his internalised homo/biphobia. In order to conform to his heteronormative society, David finds himself turning away from someone in need. Or that’s how David justifies his own cowardice. It will be up to readers to decide just how culpable he is. While I did not not sympathize with David, I did despise him. Similarly, I disliked Jaques, Guillaume, and almost everybody else really. Giovanni is, unsurprisingly, the one I felt for the most, which is saying something given his less than poor taste remarks on women (after claiming that he respects them he says that wives do need knocking about now and again, and implies that women are inferior to men). Yet, it is because Baldwin captures Giovanni’s anguish and desperation in such excruciating detail that I was unable to write him off as a misogynist asshole.

David’s story seems permeated by physical and moral squalor. Even emotions like desire and love acquire an unpleasant quality, as they are often twinned with their counterparts (repugnance, hatred). The atmosphere of Paris itself once again recalls that of Venice in Mann’s novel, and even George Orwell’s memoir, Down and Out in Paris and London. Its beauty is spoilt by the ugliness of its people and by the squalidness of places such as Giovanni’s apartment.
To call this story depressing or bleak seems an understatement. Yet, Baldwin’s superb prose manages to belie David’s internal abjection.

Now, as much as I am blown away by this novel, I do have to address Giovanni’s often hilarious ‘Italianess’. Dio mio. This is the kind of Italian character that I often see in fiction by English authors. He is the classic passionate Mediterranean who sometimes speaks of himself in the third person, makes remarks about beating women because that’s how Italian men are (a few months ago i worked with someone who claimed, to my face, that all italian men are sexist, and that italy is as ‘bad’ as india…to say that her statement was problematic on multiple fronts would be an understatement), and when reminiscing about his village he says that he wanted to stay there forever and “eat much spaghetti and drink much wine” (it’s a me, giovanni!). Still, despite these cartoonish aspects of his character, I did find myself buying into him.

This is a terrific piece of fiction, one that is guaranteed to make you anxious, sad, and uneasy (possibly even queasy). Yet, Baldwin’s fantastic prose and his tremendous psychological insight are bound to enthral.

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