Updated: Jun 12, 2020
What I knew of James Baldwin was what the general public knew about him: acclaimed writer, civil rights activist, revolutionary. You know, surface-level stuff. I have a friend who is obsessed with James Baldwin. I wanted to be able to discuss Baldwin (and actually know what I'm talking about) I picked up a copy of Giovanni's room. Other than the brief description on the back cover, I had no idea what I was getting in to.
Man, can I say: I get it. I get why Baldwin is a literary giant. Okay- I get why, maybe this book, in particular, isn't included in high school curriculum, but man this man should be required reading. This book should be as well. We aren't doing any favors to our youth by not exploring the concepts of this masterpiece. I say this as someone who had to read the great Gatsby twice for school (once in middle school and again in high school). I am slowly but surely making my way through Baldwin's catalog.
Giovanni's Room is set in 1950's Paris. We follow David, a young American man whose girlfriend has left for Spain to contemplate marriage. Alone in Paris, David begins an affair with an Italian man, Giovanni. In Flash forwards, we find out that Giovanni will be executed the next morning.
As a reader who didn't know what was going to happen next, I was a little annoyed when we were taken away from the present action, but the jumps in the timeline did create an urgency within me to know how we get from where we are at the beginning of the novel to the first flashback. There are a dozen genres that this book can fit into. My favorite is the sub-genre of the book as realist fiction.
The book is a short read, though it isn't light. The themes and concepts of this book will have you thinking long after you have finished reading.Even if you haven't been in the same particular situations as David, the protagonist, you are able to empathize with the plight. The struggle to reconcile meeting society's expectation and fulfilling one's own desire.
Had I intended to go through so many emotions in 159 short pages? No, but I did. Am I one prone to cry over fictional characters? No, but Mr. Baldwin got a few tears from me. Not only is the nature of the book realistic, but the writing is poetic and thought-provoking.
As far as literature goes, it's hard to critique. I admit, the book is a bit slow at times, including the beginning. Some of the events may be triggering for some people. I'm not sure if this is a con; but if you are an emotional gangsta like myself, the fact that this book will probably draw tears from your reluctant eyes is a con.
I'd recommend Giovanni's Room for book clubs. It was a good book while I was reading it, it was a great book when I was finished. There is so much to unpack once you have finished reading. It's a book you would want to discuss not only the content but the context in which it was written. Baldwin left America for Paris to avoid racism of the early 20th Century America. Baldwin's choices in writing a novel the discussed homosexuality and masculinity were bold. The contemplation of how Giovanni's room would fare in this day and age would be enough to get the discussion going.
Many subjects in the book have only recently become less taboo. So maybe it would be allowed in high school lectures. The fact that Baldwin had the wherewithal to create such nuanced characters is beyond amazing. Baldwin was sincerely ahead of his time with this one. My friend likes to gloat "I told you so". I have to concede; he was right. I look forward to working my way through Baldwin's other works.