Giovanni’s Room: A Book Review

I love to follow breadcrumbs; to read, for example, one book, and have the author nudge me toward another. That’s what happened this week. I had reread Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away while writing a six-part series on how to write memoir. On page 31 she writes, “I couldn’t believe what was happening to me in southern Florida at my mother’s usually mundane retirement community. I was reading one of the most beautiful books of my life.” That book is James Baldwin’s novel, Giovanni’s Room.

Giovanni’s Room is a mere 169 pages. I can usually inhale a book of that length in a couple of hours, but this one took me an entire week. Using Shelley Wilson’s #FridayBookShare template, I’ll explain why.

First Line of the Book

“I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life.”

Recruit Fans by Adding the Book Blurb

Giovanni’s Room was first published in 1956. It features in the top ten of several ‘Best 100 Books Ever Written’ lists. Perhaps because it is so famous, the back cover blurb on my 2013 edition is sparse. It reads:

“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.”

For a little more information, I like author Garth Greenwell’s comment in The Guardian:

“The novel is framed by present-tense scenes set at the end of the drama, in the night before Giovanni is going to be executed….All of the book’s major plot points are declared in the first pages: we know that David has abandoned Giovanni, we know that David’s ex-fiancée Hella has returned to the United States, we know that Giovanni has been sentenced to die.”

People who believe that they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception.

James Baldwin

Introduce the Main Character Using Only Three Words

David is dishonest (with himself and others), tormented, and self-pitying. And yet, despite all of that, I was rooting for him to get his act together.

Delightful Design (Add the Cover Image)

Giovanni's Room book cover

 

Audience Appeal

When James Baldwin wrote Giovanni’s Room his publisher refused to publish it, saying that it would end Baldwin’s literary career. First, he was a black man writing about white people. The publisher was convinced this would displease both blacks and white. Even more daringly, Baldwin was writing about gay or perhaps bisexual white people at a time when homosexuality was still in the closet.

Certainly there is audience appeal within the gay, lesbian and bisexual communities. But it is erroneous to claim that group as Baldwin’s only audience. Giovanni’s Room was a compelling read for me, even though I am neither lesbian nor bisexual. I think that’s because, as so many GoodReads reviewers attest, Giovanni’s Room is “a perfect novel.” It deals with universal themes of identity, love, and societal expectations. There’s plot, brilliant characterization, and a setting of Paris in the 1950’s. What’s not to like?

And if you are a writer, studying how Baldwin writes his scenes and how he works with time is a master-class in luminous writing. At least it would be if you didn’t just want to shoot yourself for never, ever being able to come close to his level of mastery. (Or maybe that’s just me!)

Your Favourite Line or Scene

Giovanni’s Room is a very visual novel. There were so many places where Baldwin’s language use was poetic, lyrical, achingly descriptive:

“There were young people, half a dozen at the zinc counter before glasses of red and white whine, along with others not young at all. A pockmarked boy and a very rough-looking girl were playing the pinball machine near the window. There were a few people sitting at the tables in the back, served by an astonishingly clean-looking waiter. In the gloom, the dirty walls, the sawdust-covered floor, his white jacket gleamed like snow. Behind these tables one caught a glimpse of the kitchen and the surly, obese cook. He lumbered about like one of those overloaded trucks outside, wearing one of those high, white hats, and with a dead cigar stuck between his lips.” (p.50)

It is also a philosophical novel. Baldwin knows precisely when saying less will mean more:

“Much has been written of love turning to hatred, of the heart growing cold with the death of love. It is a remarkable process. It is far more terrible than anything I have ever read about it, more terrible than anything I will ever be able to say.” (p.158)

Giovanni’s Room

Giovanni’s Room gives us a world within a novel. It is slow-paced, exquisitely rendered, and well worth whatever time it takes to read.

Please tell us about a great book you’ve read, something that had you marvelling at the author’s skill. 

 

16 comments

  1. I love reading good books, but when I go onto the next one, especially if it is as good or better than the last, I tend to forget the ones before. I suppose that is because I read the books from the library and someone in my house is a much faster reader than me.
    I know my other problem is, while I am reading during the day, my mind is going to the household jobs I want to complete, so I go to bed early and try to catch up then.
    You do a good review of books, so much so, I want to read them also.

  2. I’m the guilty someone – sorry about that! And sorry that you won’t be able to read Giovanni’s Room – it was an interlibrary loan and needs to go back today.

  3. Great book review Karen, I love that format since it tends to help avoid running into spoilers. I am glad you liked this book as much as you did. I have read books that just fascinated me too and they tend to stay with me for a long time. Breadcrumbs are great ways to find new books, after all, if an AUTHOR promotes a book like Natalie Goldberg did I would feel compelled to look into finding a copy. I have added Giovanni’s Room to my To Read List based on how much you enjoyed it and your review above. It will have to wait for a bit though as I am still chewing on my current book The Heaven Trilogy by Ted Dekker. This huge tome is three books inside one cover (Heaven’s Wager/When Heaven Weeps/Thunder Of Heaven) and is 1,061 pages long. I have been reading it for about a month now! It is an engrossing read that holds my attention – the problem is carving out time to do some solid reading.

    What I like to do too, besides following breadcrumbs, is if I enjoy a book I look for other books written by the same author; Stephen King and Lee Child come to mind. LOL 😉

    1. Oh my gosh, Susan – 1,061 pages. The last time I remember reading something of that length it was one of Greg Iles Natchez Burning trilogy. I found it enjoyable too, but did look forward to reading other things once it was over!

      I noticed your comment about the difficulty of finding time to read. I completely understand the dilemma. However, I also want to remind you of a comment on another post where you said that you were going to make a point of taking time for reading because you knew it was such an important act of self-care. It’s easy for those commitments to ourselves to slip. I hope you won’t mind the friendly reminder that you’re worth it!

      1. LOL, I know right, what was I thinking 1,061 pages? It reminds me of Stephen King’s Under The Dome which is 1,072 pages. I think after I get this one finished I will be looking forward to reading something else too! 😉

        Thank you for the reminder about self-care. I will now bump reading time up in my priorities list because it really is important to me. That is my default position…always others first so I really do need the gentle reminder every now and then that I count too. So, thank you, Karen. 😀

  4. You didn’t say if they made this novel into a movie – if not, it’s surprising as it seems to have everything that would make a great movie. Perhaps it’s because the book was written in 1956 and the theme of the book was not really acceptable at that time. You wrote a terrific synopsis of the book Karen; just enough to get your readers interested without giving anything away.

    1. Hi Anna,
      I notice a few little Giovanni’s Room movies on YouTube, but they all look like college student projects. That doesn’t mean there won’t be one in the future, but I think it would be challenging to do since so much of the novel is the main character’s inner life.
      Thanks for your comment and your compliment!

  5. I always appreciate a book recommendation – whether from an author, a friend, or another blogger! After I read your post, I went to our library’s website and put the book on hold for me. Thank you!

  6. Another in-depth and appealing book review, Karen. You really have to stop doing this, as I am adding all these great-sounding books to my “to-read-list”, 🙂 But, honestly, I barely have time to read. 169 pages, you say? Maybe, just maybe, I can manage that when I am on a longer house sit with a library close by! It sounds fascinating, especially from a writer’s point of view.

    1. Thanks, Liesbet! And I’m sorry that my post has added another book to your lengthy list. (Not really, but I sound sincere don’t I?) I hope you like it. When you have a chance to read it, I’d love to know if you share my depression at never, ever being able to write anywhere near as well as James Baldwin. Or maybe you’ll just feel inspired and a slight nudge will take you into his stratosphere. Either way, enjoy!

  7. This is a great review, Karen. You have really made this book review format work incredibly well. This is another book that I have now flagged for my pile!

  8. Great book review! I agree with Donna about the format. It is succinct and engaging. I am almost tempted to use the FRIDAY format myself to write a book review (this from a person who has always hated writing book reviews — I swore never to write one again after ceasing to be a student).

    I have not read Giovanni’s Room. I will keep your recommendation in mind, after I get through my pile of fifty yet-to-read books.

    Jude

    1. Hi Jude,
      I’m with you about book reviews. I’ve never enjoyed writing them, never knew what to say. I’m grateful to Donna for sharing the FRIDAY format. It does a nice job of helping me to shape a review. In fact, it’s actually fun to write using this template. I hope you will give the format a try sometime. I’d love to know what you are reading and what you’d recommend to the rest of us. Perhaps one of your fifty yet-to-be-read titles will be a book you can’t resist telling us about.

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