Book Review: Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin

November 19, 2019

 

Rating 5/5

 

"I take the blue envelope which Jaques has sent to me and tear it slowly into many pieces, watching them dance in the wind, watching the wind carry them away. Yet, as I turn and begin walking toward the waiting people, the wind blows some of them back on me."

 

Set in 1950's France, 'Giovanni’s Room' is a short novel that tells the story of a young man named David, an American who leaves the States for Paris and forms an intimate relationship with an Italian man named Giovanni. This book is less about a tragic gay love story, and more about an emotionally withdrawn man who struggles to love other people. His father, his estranged fiancée, even himself. The main character David is someone who keeps his feelings hidden behind a stone wall, which plays a part in how those around him parish mentally, emotionally and physically. I was going to put a spoiler disclaimer at the start of this review, but the death of Giovanni is no secret to the reader. This book is told in first person past-tense and begins as David reflects on his life and time in Paris while awaiting his ex-lover’s execution. We learn how they met, how their relationship unfolded and what led to Giovanni’s downfall.

 

As a teen, David has his first sexual experience which causes him to hate himself and repress his queer feelings for men. He begins to act out, nearly killing himself all while pushing his father away. While in Paris he meets Hella, another American who he gets engaged to, and as the story moves along we see just how he keeps her around for comfort and to escape the truth about his sexuality. I enjoyed the character of Hella and felt that she deserved better than a man like David. Not because he was gay. But because he was selfish, and cold, and hard. He strung not only her along, but also Giovanni for his own gain when he knew that either of those relationships would have a happy ending.

 

David was a user. He used those around him, even his own father and friends when he was low on money. He used Giovanni when he needed a place to live, and he used Sue and Hella when he needed a woman’s touch to cleanse him from his dirty thoughts about men.

All of the male characters had unlikable qualities, reeking of sexism and internalized homophobia. But all the while, I understood Giovanni and David beneath all of that. I understood how broken Giovanni felt, and how David suffered with keeping his feelings bottled up all the time.

 

‘Giovanni’s Room’ is beautifully written and I LOVED this story for its raw take on being closeted, depressed, drowning in guilt and in love. This isn’t a happily ever after tale, but James Baldwin did a magnificent job in giving us something to take away from it. There are also many classic quotes from this book that will for sure stick with me for years to come.  

 

Check out this book available on Amazon!

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