Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
Publisher: Vintage, 2013
My Rating: 5/5 stars
When David’s girlfriend Hella flees the country without answering his marriage proposal, his life is plunged into emotional and financial turmoil. Left alone in Paris in the 1950s, he must find a way to support himself while his father denies him money in hopes of pressuring him into returning to the United States. For a season, David finds refuge in the apartment of a handsome Italian bartender named Giovanni. The two men begin a romantic relationship that plunges David into a moral crisis, dredging up an identity he had been running from. Ultimately, their affair is full of discovery, dependency, and loathing—coming to an inevitably tragic end.
What I most enjoyed about this book is how it fearlessly grapples with the topics of sexuality and masculinity. David and Giovanni’s relationship is enshrouded in a secret—David’s would-be-fiancé Hella—from the beginning, predestining it for a short lifespan. Further complicating their affair, societal pressure weighs the men down and warps their perception of one another. Simultaneous to this relationship playing out, Baldwin presents a secondary character who questions the reader’s view of masculinity: the always sharply dressed Guillaume, a man wealthy enough to force the young men who work for him—like Giovanni—into doing whatever he wants at risk of losing their jobs and having their reputations ruined. While Guillaume is not a particularly appealing character, there is no doubt that he has agency, a revolutionary concept—especially in 1956–for a homosexual male character who is not masculine presenting.
Baldwin furthers the work’s modern sensibilities, and my delight, by perfectly illustrating the “it’s complicated” relationship status on Facebook. Though this is not David’s first same-sex encounter, he finds himself blaming Giovanni as if he has been taken advantage of. This blame leads him to a personal affirmation that their affection for one another is unnatural, driving a wedge between the two men and highlighting the damage that shame and guilt can cause if woven into the emotional tapestry of a relationship; a theme that is universal beyond same-sex relationships, making this novel more accessible to a wider audience.
What resonates most with me about this book, however, is how it examines the cost of living life authentically. David knows that he desires Giovanni more than anything else, and yet, for a chance at normalcy, he must deny his authentic self; Giovanni is a working-class immigrant who is running from normalcy in hopes of finding his authentic self; and Hella wishes to be an independent woman, but also feels that she cannot take full advantage of life without living in a traditionally domesticated way. These internal struggles showcase the damage that denying our authentic self can cause—not only internally, but to those nearest to us as well.
Full of beautiful language and rich emotional landscapes, Giovanni’s Room is an incredibly accessible read and comes in at less than two hundred pages—making it a perfect addition to your pride month reading list.
Guest blog post courtesy of Edward Dolehanty.