Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
Published by: Dial Press in 1956 (original publication date)
Rating: 4 stars (★★★★☆)
What do you do when you want something so badly it scares you half to death? And when you don’t understand why you want it in the first place?
David is an American who has run off to Europe to explore and learn new things. (Though some might say he’s running from what his life would be if he stayed in the states.) While on his travels, he’s met Hella, a woman from Minnesota, and he expects he’ll marry her someday. That’s what he should do.
But while Hella is off exploring in Spain, David does some exploring of his own. He meets Giovanni, a young bartender, one evening and the two hit it off. Before long, David moves in with Giovanni, sharing the small room he’s renting, and what the two of them have goes well beyond friendship.
For David, this all feels so right but so incredibly wrong at the same time. He cares dearly for Giovanni, but the thought of being with him forever is frightening. And there’s still Hella. Hella feels safe for David. And she will be coming back someday.
David will need to make a choice, and he knows what the easy decision would be. But it’s all complicated by the fact that Giovanni has fallen in love with him. And David just might be too frightened to admit that he loves Giovanni back. If he abandons Giovanni, he knows his world will fall apart, but what’s his responsibility to this other man anyway? He can live with the guilt, right?
The 1950s were certainly not an easy time to be gay. But that’s true for much of history. And the struggles that some men went through, trying to reconcile who they were with society’s expectations, were certainly heart wrenching. And we get a good glimpse of that here.
When reading this, it’s easy to think of it as historical fiction. But that diminishes the significance of James Baldwin writing this contemporary to the time it takes place. In that regard, it’s a truly groundbreaking work, although it’s not exactly the most uplifting piece of literature.
I definitely give this one a recommendation, though I need to put a caveat that it’s not a happiness and sunshine story. It’s gritty. And it will definitely make you think.