by James Baldwin
Words like haunting, honest, emotional, and terrible barely begin to describe the content of this short novel.
First off, you have to consider that this was written in 1956. I am assuming that the main character is black (I can't even remember if that's explicitly stated anywhere in the novel!!!) but his race doesn't seem to matter. He could be anyone, anywhere in love (or in lust) and searching to find himself and his real feelings. The main character, David, goes through a fascinating journey, discovering what he is, trying to come to terms with what he is(straight, bi, gay?), trying to decide what he feels & who he wants. It's all too common and easy to relate to. I certainly read it because of the gay/bi elements, which are an important core of the book. But saying that it's LGBT lit doesn't come close to describing it.
Second, the characters seemed so real to me. They are imperfect, conflicted, sensual, passionate, thoughtful, reckless, selfish, curious, brave, and so much more. But mostly conflicted. I used the word "honest" above, I guess I should have said "realistic" because the main character is unable to be honest all the time, even with himself, and not everyone is able to be honest with him, either. But that's how life is. Sometimes you CAN'T say what you feel or admit who you love. Sometimes you DO hate yourself and feel guilty.
And even though you know from the beginning that we're being lured into a situation that we're told will end badly, you still have hope that these characters will get goodness from it. You know you're heading for a car crash but you're hoping that your favorite song will play on the radio one last time before it's destroyed. Does that make any sense?
Third, it is an amazing period piece. It's a great look at a young Ex-pat's time in Europe--culture, views, everything. And it's painful. The surroundings go from being wild and free and open to painfully small and stifling. The mood changes from passion and love to disgust so quickly, and back again. As Jacques puts it: "Nobody can stay in the Garden of Eden." And, yet... you'll have those memories and experiences of Eden within you the rest of your life. There's no escaping life OR yourself.
I wasn't immediately hooked, because it's quite different from what I typically read. I started it twice before really getting into it, in fact. But it's a quick read and quite an emotional one. I felt elated at times. I felt at times like I was suffocating. And sometimes I felt sick to my stomach because of a particular twist. But most of the time, I felt tied to the main character, willing to really try to understand him (as much as I could) and take this ride along with him.