Review: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

It’s hard to describe what James Baldwin has done with Giovanni’s Room. In some ways, oddly enough, this novel reminds me of Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple. Young (though not so young) confused loved. Passions and promises, forsaken and broken. The main character, David, seems to be a homosexual in denial; whereas, his love interest, Giovanni, turns out to be a heterosexual “made” gay by a tragic, heartbreaking loss, which is explained in the latter part of the novel. I think Baldwin makes the situation more complicated than it needs to be, but in a way it’s understandable, as proposing homosexuality to be innate, something other than “choice” in the early 1950’s would be preposterous, even if the story does take place in Paris, France. I suppose Baldwin had to tip-toe around the subject, while simultaneously facing it head-on. An interesting feat that, somehow, Baldwin ultimately accomplishes. I thoroughly enjoyed Giovanni’s Room, despite the presence of any “natural” gay male (those who are included are all “effeminate fairies” – despised by each of the novels’ three major characters). I don’t entirely disagree with Baldwin’s portrayal of the openly gay homosexual men, and their habitues, but I do wish that either David or Giovanni would have, in the end, broken the mold. In any event, the story was painful and beautiful – I read through its two-hundred plus pages in a day because I couldn’t put the book down, and I couldn’t wait to find out what would happen between the two lovers (though sometimes I cringed at hints of the finality to come). What almost outshines the homosexual aspect of the novel is that this is a novel of Americanism in France – it is a study and critique of American culture, seen through the eyes of Europeans. It fits in quite naturally with the works of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Stein (among others). If you’re interested in historical gay fiction or homosexual relationships, or if you enjoy or are fascinated by expatriate literature and love affairs – Giovanni’s Room is probably a good bet for you.

2 Comments on “Review: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

  1. I read this in high school when I was going through my phase of reading anything that pulled up as gay fiction in our public library system. I don’t remember much about it other than how horribly depressing the whole thing was. This was the time I was also reading Jean Genet and a few others. Maybe I need to revist the book since you seem to have enjoyed it more than I remember myself liking it.


  2. I loved the book, mostly because it pulled no punches. Ultimately, I felt guilty liking David at all because of his complete willingness to destroy people’s lives in order to protect his false identity. I didn’t see Giovanni as “turned” gay by his tragedy, but rather liberated & therefore able to explore his sexuality as a result. I agree with Ryan that it was very depressing, but it’s so beautifully written that I didn’t mind. “The great difficulty is to say Yes to life.” – JB


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