Archive for the ‘ Romance ’ Category

REVIEW: “A Home at the End of the World” by Michael Cunningham

A Home at the End of the World

Michael Cunningham
Farrar Straus Giroux, NY, 1990

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge, Read the Movie Challenge.

Finished 15 Aug 2010

At last! The drought is over. I have finally finished another novel! Now I have to work hard and see how much I can catch up over the rest of the month. Oh yes, and post this review.

I picked up A Home at the End of the World because, as you will no doubt know, I recently watched the movie adaptation and completely fell in love. From the synopsis:

A Home at the End of the World is the story of two boyhood friends: Jonathan, lonely, introspective, and unsure of himself; and Bobby, hip, dark, and inarticulate. In New York after college, Bobby moves in with Jonathan and his roommate, Clare, a veteran of the city’s erotic wars. Bobby and Clare fall in love, scuttling the plans of Jonathan, who is gay, to father Clare’s child. Then, when Clare and Bobby have a baby, the three move to a small house upstate to raise “their” child together and create a new kind of family.

The story is told in four different voices, alternating between Jonathan, Bobby, Clare and Jonathan’s mother, Alice. Perhaps having seen the movie added to the text for me, because before I even opened the book the characters were already real: they had faces, habits, particular ways of moving and thinking which were already understood. The movie did half the book’s work for it. Still, I agree with those who have said that there was too little character definition in between parts: I couldn’t really get a sense of each character’s voice from their internal perspective, mostly because Cunningham’s style simply overrode any attempt at individuality between sections. Too, I found the sustained bleakness of the narratives depressing and quite stressful to read, to the point where I could only read it in fragments towards the end. It was as if there was no hope or love left in the world: the sheer loneliness of each of the characters was devastating.

However. These things aside, it is worth reading for the majestic prose and insightful observation it provides on the human condition. While it may have set out to be a story of three adults and their attempt to negotiate their own complicated love triangle, to me Home is really about the end of an era, the collision between the ‘free love’ attitude of the sixties and seventies with the hard realities of the 1980s and the start of the AIDs epidemic: “They looked like a pair of beatniks, sloppily dressed in a remote, unimportant place. In their sunglasses and T-shirts and unruly hair they looked like they were standing at the brink of the old cycle: the 1960s about to explode around them, a long storm of love and rage and thwarted expectations. Bobby put his arm over Jonathan’s shoulder. They both waved.” (p.327) It’s about being lost; it’s about growing up; it’s about never quite getting your heart’s desire. It is not a happy book, but it is a powerful one, because it tackles head-on those fears shared by the majority of the human race: of illness, death, loss and failure.

It is also well written enough that I would recommend it to anyone brave enough. Some of my favourite quotes, other than those I’ve featured in previous Teaser Tuesdays:

“How are you feeling, man?” he asks me.

“Great,” I tell him, and it is purely the truth. Doves clatter up out of a bare tree and turn at the same instant, transforming themselves from steel to silver in the snow-blown light. I know at that moment that the drug is working. Everything before me has become suddenly, radiantly itself. How could Carlton have known this was about to happen? “Oh,” I whisper. His hand settles on my shoulder.

“Stay loose, Frisco,” he says. “There’s not a thing in this pretty world to be afraid of. I’m here.”

I am not afraid. I am astonished. I had not realized until this moment how real everything is. A twig lies on the marble at my feet, bearing a cluster of hard brown berries. The broken-off end is raw, white, fleshly. Trees are alive.

“I’m here,” Carlton says again, and he is.

— pp.22-23

“I’m talking about a little truth-in-packaging here. To be perfectly frank, you don’t quite look like yourself. And if you walk around looking like someone other than who you are, you could end up getting the wrong job, the wrong friends, who knows what-all. You could end up with somebody else’s life.”

I shrugged again, and smiled. “This is my life,” I said. “It doesn’t seem like the wrong one.”

— p.148

Overall, a compelling novel but a bit too much on the bleak side to be comfortable. I feel a definite need to read something light and fluffy now, just to cheer myself up! The film is much better; I think if you combined the two of them – the movie’s rich depiction of love and hope in the face of adversity, the book’s sad but still beautiful ending – you’d have the perfect story.

RATING:

REVIEW: “A Home at the End of the World” (film)

A Home at the End of the World

Directed by Michael Mayer
2004

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge, Read the Movie Challenge

I’m going to be honest here and say that I really don’t care what anyone else thinks of this movie: I loved it. I’ve read some fairly critical responses to it which more or less take it apart from a cinematic point of view, and for all I know they’re right, it’s a terrible movie. As I said: it really doesn’t matter to me. Something about the story and characters touched me personally, to the point where more objective/technical concerns ceased to be relevant.

From the blurb on the back cover, the film purports to be a story about three people – Bobby, Jonathan and Clare – and their attempt to form a highly unconventional family unit together. What I saw was more of a commentary on the end of an era; the children of the sixties and seventies growing into adults in a world that is much harsher and more dangerous than they were lead to expect – the loneliness that comes from growing up and realising the inherent bleakness of the human condition – the bonds that unite and sustain us, however unconventional they may be. The characters were beautiful, interesting, complicated people, their relationships believable and tender. All of them were lost in different ways, struggling to determine who they were and who they wanted to be. In this sense, they were perfect for each other, but inevitably doomed to disappointment as well.

I found myself extremely attached to all of them and very involved in their story. The parts were very well played by the actors, and although they did falter once or twice, I was never jolted out of the story by poor delivery or unbelievable reactions. Because of this, I was devastated by the ending of the movie: it was not only kind of predictable and vague but also utterly heart-wrenching. A film to open the soul, I think, even if it isn’t perfect – one of my favourites to date.

RATING:

REVIEW: “Maurice” (film)

Maurice

Directed by James Ivory
1987

CHALLENGE(S): Read the Movie Challenge

Let me begin this review with a frank and potentially hypocritical remark that summarises my initial reaction to certain parts of the film: HOLY GRATUITOUS NEKKID MEN, BATMAN. No, really. If you thought Brokeback Mountain was pushing boundaries, you have obviously not seen this movie.

This is not, I hasten to add, a prurient response (or at least, not merely), so much as one of complete surprise. It was not something I was expecting, in spite of the M rating (you know they’d have put that there just because the main character was gay, even if there had been no naked men involved whatsoever). To be honest, one tends to forget that men exist below the waist in movies generally, and after I got over my initial double-take I immediately found myself faced with the question of why it should be so surprising. I was under the impression that I had outgrown the prudish part of my nature some time ago, yet here I was, recoiling as if it were so completely shocking that oh my god, men were actually showing their naughty bits on-screen. Had either, or even both of them been a woman I probably wouldn’t even have thought twice about it. But in this case, it was like some kind of invisible line had been crossed and suddenly I was sitting back going, what am I watching?!

Talk about walking smack into your own subliminated prejudices. If there ever was a clearer demonstration of how the gendered gaze in cinema can structure your expectations…

In point of fact, though, I wouldn’t have brought it up except that it struck me as closely related to the main theme of the story itself. As I mentioned in my review of the novel on which it is based, Maurice is very much about the conflict between conventionality and personal liberation, and (perhaps because this is inextricably intertwined) about the gulf between words and actions, both of which I think played a significant part in the director’s choices when it came to creating the film. Most specifically, the story deals implicitly with ideas of masculinity and gender conformity as the titular Maurice grapples with society’s (and his own) disgust at his sexuality and the love that ultimately defines him, until he is forced to embrace exile and transcend that disgust to find happiness. Somewhat similarly, the director seems to have necessarily taken a step outside of the traditional, (heterosexual, white, middle-class, privileged, masculine…?) viewpoint in so much of mainstream cinema in order to shake up the viewer’s expectations and underscore this point.

Of course, James Ivory also directed A Room With a View which, if I recall correctly, had a brief scene in it which also shocked me at the time, so perhaps this is just his particular style of unvarnished, unalloyed filmmaking: in which case, more power to him. On the other hand, there were instances in the first half (during Maurice’s relationship with Clive) that there were opportunities to do this if that was his sole intention, and he chose to refrain. It was because most of the nekkid men scenes came in in the second half (after the split with Clive, and particularly during his relationship with Alec) that I made the connection between the two aspects in the first place.

However. Setting my personal reactions and speculations aside for the moment, I will say that it wasn’t exactly what I’d call a good film. I blame Hugh Grant, although not so much because of his acting (or lack thereof) as by virtue of the fact that he was Hugh Grant, causing me to realise holy crap that’s what Hugh Grant looked like the year I was born, which was followed by the charmingly self-centered holy crap people really did exist before I was born, that is so weird and thus so distracted me to the point where I completely failed to be able to see him as anyone else, let alone the intellectual and weak-natured Clive Durham. His “romance” with Maurice (played by James Wilby) was wooden at best, and downright embarrassing at worst, which made it quite difficult for me to sit through the first half of the story. This unsatisfactory beginning was made up for, however, by the fact that viewing the movie helped me to fully process my thoughts about the novel and come to a place where I felt I actually understood it for the first time. Connections were made. Relationships dawned. I began to realise just how deviously, deliciously subtle good old straight-forward Forster could be.

And that, I think, was the chief delight of this film. It brought the novel to life for me, not least because it quoted virtually every other page. Wilby was perfectly cast, even if Grant was not, and a great deal of the symbolism was included or embellished upon, giving a person who has read the book a number of those in-jokes and moments of “Oh, I know what he’s doing there…” which so greatly flatter the intellect. The direction is perhaps a little too self-conscious and heavy-handed in parts – one might even call it overwrought: it is obvious when he wishes to make a point, for instance, or to impress upon the audience that this particular moment is poignant, and emotional, but the highlights of the novel were handled adequately (and the ending, where Maurice rubs Clive’s nose in the fact that he is over him now, thanks, is perfectly done) and as an adaptation it was not too shoddy – though I would love to see it remade and shiny for a new and perhaps more appreciative audience.

Definitely recommended. But read the book first, and, ahem, beware unexpected!naked!men…

RATING:

REVIEW: “Maurice” by E. M. Forster

Maurice

E. M. Forster
Penguin Books, UK, 1995

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge, Read the Movie Challenge

Finished 27 Jun 2010

I only really picked this book up because I got the movie out and thought it would make a good addition to the “Read the Movie” Challenge. The premise sounded interesting, but so much like Brideshead Revisited that I was sure it would suffer by comparison, and in some respects it did. However, as I should probably have expected by now, Maurice proved to be utterly different than I anticipated, and ultimately the better for it.

Set in Edwardian England, the novel follows the life of Maurice Hall, every inch an “average” English gentleman, who is being relentlessly groomed to take the place of his dead father as an average stockbroker with an average and thoroughly respectable life. Were it not for a chance meeting with Clive Durham at Cambridge, he would likely have taken his place in society without a qualm. But his love affair with Clive begins to break through the stultifying normality of his everyday life, introducing Maurice to feelings of joy he had never imagined, and spurring him to dream that two men together might just be able to defy the world.

I have conflicting feelings about this novel. E. M. Forster is an old favourite of mine; A Room With a View blew me away when I first read it several years ago, so I’ve had a soft spot for him ever since. I love the way he approaches things. His prose is direct, objective, and the detached detail with which he analyses his characters, their actions and interactions, the decisions they make and the way their lives plan out makes for curiously compelling reading. He is also extremely empathetic and skilled at dissembling psychological impulses and complexities.

At the same time, I felt somewhat distanced from the characters – at times I even actively disliked them. There were passages of prose which were fantastic (in particular, the brief scene in which Clive admits he loves Maurice was extremely moving) but others which were so obfuscating as to bewilder me completely. It is definitely a book which will require re-reading several times before it sinks in, and fortunately it is of a type which I would not mind picking up and perusing for new meaning from time to time.

There were some things I did pick up on, however, which enhanced the reading experience considerably. When I first closed the covers, the ending bewildered me: I had been lead to expect a (spoiler!) happy reunion between Maurice and Clive, and had no idea why Alec was even involved. Clive’s attitude confused me, too, since he was the first to be so open about his homosexuality. It wasn’t until I referred back to an earlier passage in the book that some comprehension dawned:

“Everything I say is serious.” And somehow Maurice knew this to be true. It had struck him at once that Risley was serious. “And are you serious?”
“Don’t ask me.”
“Then talk until you become so.”
“Rubbish,” growled the Dean.
Chapman laughed tempestuously.
“Rubbish?” He questioned Maurice, who, when he grasped the point, was understood to reply that deeds are more important than words.
“What’s the difference? Words are deeds. Do you mean to say that these five minutes in Cornwallis’s rooms have done nothing for you? Will you ever forget you have met me, for instance?”
Chapman grunted.
“But he will not, nor will you. And then I am told we ought to be doing something.”
The Dean came to the rescue of the two Sunningtonians. He said to his young cousin, “You’re unsound about memory. You confuse what’s important with what’s impressive. No doubt Chapman and Hall always will remember they’ve met you – ”
“And forget this is a cutlet. Quite so.”
“But the cutlet does some good them, and you none.”
“Obscurantist!”
“This is just like a book,” said Chapman. “Eh, Hall?”
“I mean,” said Risley, “oh how clearly I mean that the cutlet influences your subconscious lives, and I your conscious, and so I am not only more impressive than the cutlet but more important.”

— pp. 32-33

The way I see it, Clive is all about words: he insists that their relationship may only be “excused” if it remains platonic – that is, unconsummated, in the realm of words and emotions only. Maurice accepts this because not only does Clive seem to know far more about it than he does but he is, as Forster puts it, “at this stage…humble and inexperienced and adoring, he is the soul released from prison, and if asked by his deliverer to remain chaste he obeys” (p.314). But the major difference between them, and that which ultimately destroys their relationship, is that Maurice is as much about deeds as he is about words, as evidenced by the excerpt above. He is not content to remain as a “friend” in name but not in action. As he repeatedly complains after their separation, Clive is willing to do anything for him except be with him, and he is incapable of reconciling the inherent contradictions this entails. He breaks away; acts, in this case by sleeping with Alec, and in doing so finally comes to accept himself and his true position in society, rather than that which he has been pretending to for so long.

As you can probably see, Maurice is a complicated novel that makes you work for comprehension, and is not what I would call a comfortable read. However, it is definitely worth it and ultimately I think one which should be recommended, if only for its unusual insight into a world seldom expressed in the prose of this era.

RATING:

CymLowell

REVIEW: “The Angel’s Cut” by Elizabeth Knox

The Angel’s Cut

Elizabeth Knox
Victoria University Press, 2009

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge, Year of the Historical Challenge

Finished 30 May 2010

It took me some time to finish this one, largely because I got sidetracked in the middle and didn’t really get back to it until yesterday. Fortunately, I took some notes as I was reading in the beginning, so I am able to put my thoughts on the novel into a more or less coherent order.

You probably already know that I consider the prequel to this book, The Vintner’s Luck, to be one of my favouritest books ever. It’s kind of hard to explain why I love it so very much, exactly, but I was aware from the beginning that it’s the sort of magic that can seldom be repeated. And I will say that, much as I love Elizabeth Knox’s writing, Angel didn’t grab me quite as much as Luck did. It involved different characters and a different, more modern world, not as magical, not as closely woven (though that may be the fault of the format; curse unnecessarily large print and childlike covers). However. While I may occasionally have felt as if I didn’t quite understand, couldn’t quite follow, didn’t quite love it as much as I wanted to – it always managed to pull me back in.

From the front flap:

Boomtown Los Angeles, 1929: Into a world of movie lots and speakeasies comes Xas, stunt flier and wingless angel, still nursing his broken heart, and determined only to go on living in the air. But there are forces that will keep him on the ground. Forces like Conrad Cole, movie director and aircraft designer, a glory-seeking king of the grand splash who is also a man sinking into his own sovereign darkness. And Fiona McLeod, film editor and maimed former actress, who sees something in Xas that no one has ever seen before, not even God, who made him, or Lucifer, the general he once followed – Lucifer, who has lost Xas once, but won’t let that be the end of it.

With Knox’s fiction, I find myself having to stop and think about the weight of things. She will introduce characters, words, symbols, and twine them all together so subtly that I frequently find myself asking, what is the import of this? What does it mean? I have to be in literary analysis mode as well as readership mode, because things often have more than one meaning, and will usually contribute to an overall picture that is grander than you originally expect. This is something I’ve been trying to do with my own writing, so it’s wonderful to sink into her mind and try to follow the trails of inspiration; it gives me some sense of how to go about it myself.

At the same time, there were parts I found difficult – specifically, I kept confusing the two different characters named Conrad. One was Conrad Cole and the other was Conrad Crow, and I kept mistaking one for the other. I am guessing – since Knox is not the type of author to do something like this without reason – that this was perhaps an extension of the ideas that are entangled throughout the plot: that of imitations, echoes, originals and whether Heaven is such a wonderful place if it means leaving what makes us human behind. If that is the case, then it’s really quite brilliant, but I’m afraid the overall effect was one of confusion and irritation rather than a deeper insight into the novel’s themes.

Confusion aside, however, by the time I reached the end of the book I found I had folded down the corners of nearly as many pages as with Luck to mark passages I particularly loved. Every so often I would come across a piece of description or dialogue that hit me right in the heart and made me go, “Oh” in that way that you do when something stirs you deeply. One favourite passage:

Lucifer said, “Listen,” then was quiet as though they were both supposed to be listening to God.

No,” Xas said, refusing again.

“No,” Lucifer mimicked, and moved the angel back and forth above him as fathers fly their babies. Xas had always liked the look of that. He knew that parents only did it to make their babies laugh and-instinctively-to rock their infants’ senses of space, motion and position into health and capability. But to him it had always looked as if those parents were saying to Heaven: I hold this happiness between me and You, and, if they were, then that was instinct too, the instinct humans must have, despite all their ideas about a just and loving God, to preserve themselves from that God’s unloving love of perfection, His exacting beneficence.

— p.179

And its echo at the end of the novel:

She ran into his arms, giggling, still hot from sleep. Xas straightened and raised his daughter up into the air, over his head. She shrieked with happiness. Xas spun, flying her about, holding her up between himself and Heaven.

— p. 433

As well as the writing, I enjoyed the complexity of the new characters, particularly Flora, whose pain I could almost feel through the pages, and Captain Hintersee. Knox has a real gift for creating vibrant, living people out of words. Ultimately, however, I have mixed feelings about the novel. Vintner’s Luck was a book I could happily inhabit for the rest of my life; that I want to snuggle to my chest like a baby or a soft toy and love. I am still waiting for my opinion of Angel’s Cut to resolve itself. Perhaps it can best be summarised with a quote from the novel itself:

And then Xas thought, ‘I did love him, after all.’ Sure, he’d made a mistake with Cole, and had given his heart where he stood to lose it. But that was good, it was right, it was what should happen, it was the way faith worked, it was the proper use of love.

— p.444

Not easy, and perhaps not what I originally expected, but nevertheless a highly recommended read.

RATING:

CymLowell

REVIEW: “Saving Rafael” by Leslie Erika Wilson

Saving Rafael

Leslie Erika Wilson
Andersen Press, 2009

CHALLENGE(S): 2010 Challenge, Year of the Historical Challenge

Finished 14 May 2010

I have to confess, I love books like this. Forbidden romance with a side of (inter)national conflict? Yes please. That said, I wasn’t entirely impressed with Saving Rafael in the beginning. It is a Young Adult novel, and you can definitely tell: the writing makes no attempt at artistry, it’s just pure storytelling, and at times it felt a little simplistic for me. However, I persevered, and after a few chapters I found myself unwillingly charmed by the characters and completely hooked by the vivid setting.

The book revolves around the life of Jenny Friedemann and her family in World War II Germany. The Friedemanns are ordinary people, close friends with their neighbours, the Jakobys,  who happen to be Jewish. As the jaws of war close over the country, however, anti-Semitic laws and restrictions make it harder and harder for them to maintain that friendship without putting themselves in serious danger. Then, in the midst of bombing raids and rationing, Jenny and Rafael Jakoby fall in love, and suddenly things get much harder. We follow them as they struggle to survive Nazi Berlin and – eventually – the labour camps, without losing each other or their hope for freedom.

As I said, initially I didn’t think much of the writing and figured this would be a quick and forgettable read. I was wrong. I was soon swept up in the danger of it all, rooting for the young couple as they faced each new challenge together. The novel has a refreshing approach to sex – matter of fact without being explicit – which I thought wonderful to see in YA fiction, and builds a believable picture of Berlin in those troubled times. I did feel that a few of the characters’ motivations were rather thin, and the ending annoyed me as it was somewhat melodramatic (followed by a complete anticlimax), but aside from these minor issues, it was a great read. Highly recommended for young history lovers who enjoy a bit of romance!

RATING:

REVIEW: “A Kiss in Time” by Alex Finn

A Kiss in Time

Alex Finn
HarperTeen, 2009

CHALLENGE(S): 2010 Challenge

Finished 12 May 2010

I seem to be getting a bit behind in my reviews, so I thought I really ought to write this one up today while I had the time. A Kiss in Time is essentially a retelling of Sleeping Beauty in a modern setting. The story follows Princess Talia of Euphrasia, a forgotten kingdom in long-ago Belgium, who pricks her finger on a spindle and falls into an enchanted sleep for three hundred years. She is finally awoken by Jack, a bratty American teenager who has wandered off from his tour group, and must learn to cope not only with the modern world but with the evil witch who is still stalking her every move.

Kiss alternates between Talia and Jack’s points of view, which can at times be a little annoying. So, too, are the characters themselves: Talia is very convincing as a spoiled, if well-intentioned princess, and Jack, as I said, is the quintessential brat-with-a-heart-of-gold. In spite of this, however, the story manages to be fresh and endearing. It is, of course, a love story, and in that sense is a little trite, but Flinn allows this to develop on its own time while focusing largely on the characters’ personal development, something I greatly appreciated. The supporting cast is also fantastically drawn, and I cheered along with them as they fought their way to the climax of the novel.

I will say that there were some things which felt a little artificial – Jack’s dad’s sudden change of heart at the end, for one thing – but this could perhaps be explained as Jack imputing more evil to his father’s motives than actually existed, and in spite of my reservations about the writing style I found myself quite charmed. Kiss is nothing if not sweet (the exact word I used was “cute”) and surprisingly uplifting in spite of tackling some weighty topics; the sort of book that warms the heart. I will look forward to reading more work from this author.

RATING: