Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin is a modern classic that is regarded as one of the best examples of gay literature. I’ve been wanting to try a Baldwin novel for awhile now and I found it a visceral, beautifully written novel that provided some insight into a man struggling with his sexuality.
Giovanni’s Room is a story about a man that has always struggled with his relationships with other men. David’s relationship with his alcoholic father was strained and distant growing up in America. David’s father always told him to “act like a man,” but David’s view of what it meant to be a man was incomplete and flawed because of this relationship with his father. He has his first experience with another man when he is a teenager, with his then best friend. Wracked by guilt and the feeling of “being dirty,” which is a major thing that David feels through the entire novel, he turns on his friend and humiliates him. David goes to Paris to find himself and meets Hella, a young American girl, and they become engaged. Hella and David’s relationship ends up getting strained and Hella goes away to Spain to travel and to think about their upcoming engagement. While Hella is away David meets a young Italian bartender named Giovanni, and they fall in love. The rest of the story is about how David deals with being with Giovanni and what happens when Hella comes back.
I found Giovanni’s Room to be a beautifully written book. James Baldwin writes in such a fluent and lyrical way. His metaphors and descriptions of the physical room that David and Giovanni stay in are fantastic. The scenes where David is envisioning something happening is both wispy and powerful. My personal favorite scene was when David found Giovanni’s room to be like a prison cell. The emotion that pours from that scene is so strong.
This novel can be taken as gay literature or bisexual literature. It is up for debate if Giovanni and David are either gay or bi but in the end it doesn’t really matter, and is up to the reader to make that discernment. David’s struggle with his sexuality is almost painful to read about. He has so much guilt and shame of not being a “real man” that he destroys every one of his relationships. This novel was written in the 50’s and David’s reaction to his sexuality is how many were reacting. This novel shows that a lot of the gay individuals were more of the poor or street people. It is difficult to accept David’s reaction to his sexuality because of how destructive it is towards Giovanni and Hella, but at the same time he is a product of the time he lived, a time where you were suppose to repress your feelings towards the same sex, and it was considered dirty. In that way, we can feel empathy for David but the way he treats Giovanni is despicable. That is what made this novel so great, we have so many contrary feelings towards David, and each reader will have a different reaction to him.
I believe the main theme of the book is that you must be accountable for your love. If you give your love to someone, to someone that loves you back, you must be willing to accept your own feelings, who you are, and what you want, before you give your love to someone. We have the power to completely destroy people when we take back our love, for whatever reason, and David does this with devastating results.
I really liked this book, it is something that will probably stay with me for awhile. It is relatively short and can be knocked out in an afternoon. My only criticism is that there are moments where the narrative jumps around in the timeline of the characters and that wasn’t something I particularly cared for, but that only happened in the first half. Once the story introduced Hella back into the plot, the book became fantastic, and the second half was much stronger than the first. I find I love books centered in Paris.
4/5 20/25 Possible Score
Plot – 3(Good)
Characters – 4(Strong)
Setting – 3(Good)
Writing Style – 5(Very Strong)
Heart & Mind Aspect – 4(Strong)