Sometimes reading a “classic” makes me a little anxious. I have a long history of reading books that are called classics, and I just couldn’t get into them. This list includes, but is not limited to, Catcher in the Rye, Jane Eyre, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. So when we decided to cover Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin in The Stacks Book Club, I was worried.
If you don’t know the story of Giovanni’s Room here is a little breakdown for you.
Set in the 1950s Paris of American expatriates, liaisons, and violence, a young man finds himself caught between desire and conventional morality. With a sharp, probing imagination, James Baldwin’s now-classic narrative delves into the mystery of loving and creates a moving, highly controversial story of death and passion that reveals the unspoken complexities of the human heart.
While all “classics” get that title for a reason, the reason for this one, I actually understand. Language is powerful when it is wielded by Baldwin. There is no tepid point of view, there is no doubt, the words are strong, powerful, and precise. You can sense that Baldwin is grappling with so much of the same ideas that we are as the reader. There is a vulnerability to this work that speaks volumes. Baldwin was something special, and this book shows that.
Giovanni’s Room has been seen as a quintessential text in Gay Literature, and for good reason. Baldwin humanizes the struggle for sexual identity in a way that few did in the 1950s, and still few can do now. David, the protagonist, takes a journey of exploration and self loathing. He is asking the most basic question of what it means to live the life we want versus living the life we think we should have. Baldwin is crafted something universal in this story, despite the stigma of homosexuality, especially at that time.
There are a lot of other themes that come up in this book, from gender roles to the refusal to succumb to love, from wealth to isolation. This book examines what makes us human, what makes us carry on, and what ultimately makes us give up. And while this book is specific in its story, it is universal in scope. There is emotion and feeling that is evoked in this book, and there are moments that are deeply personal for each reader.
I would suggest this book to almost anyone, and especially to lovers of the art of writing, and to fans of James Baldwin. I would also suggest this book to people who are struggling with their sexuality, I have heard from many friends that it is healing and helpful in that journey.
Make sure to check out our Book Club conversation on The Stacks Episode 6, where we discuss this book in greater detail. As always, I’d love to hear what you think about the book and the episode.
If you’ve read the book and want a little more insight into Baldwin and his writing of Giovanni’s Room I would highly recommend this New Yorker article, The Unsparing Confessions of “Giovanni’s Room” by Colm Tóibín.
- Paperback : 176 pages
- Publisher: Vintage Books; 1 edition (2013)
- 4/5 stars
- Buy Giovanni’s Room on Amazon
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