Leading Men by Christopher Castellani
Genre: Historical Fiction
Maturity Level: 5-
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In July of 1953, at a glittering party thrown by Truman Capote in Portofino, Italy, Tennessee Williams and his longtime lover Frank Merlo meet Anja Blomgren, a mysteriously taciturn young Swedish beauty and aspiring actress. Their encounter will go on to alter all of their lives.
Ten years later, Frank revisits the tempestuous events of that fateful summer from his deathbed in Manhattan, where he waits anxiously for Tennessee to visit him one final time. Anja, now legendary film icon Anja Bloom, lives as a recluse in the present-day U.S., until a young man connected to the events of 1953 lures her reluctantly back into the spotlight after he discovers she possesses the only surviving copy of Williams’s final play.
This is a classic example of why “literary fiction” isn’t for me. Can we not have a book that isn’t mostly about how we’re all going to die someday, and in the meantime it’s inevitable that we’re miserable? Where is the hope? In all fairness, this book ends on a hopeful note, but the first 420 pages were decidedly philosophically bleak.
If you’re super into the great writers of the mid-20th century (Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and so on), this book will certainly appeal to you. If you are fascinated by LGBT history, this book is probably also for you. If you enjoy novels in which the characters spend more time thinking and reflecting than they do talking, this is DEFINITELY a book you will enjoy. If none of those things are particularly interesting to you, you’ll likely be as bored as I was.
Which I realize sounds like I’m not interested in LGBT history. Let me clarify that that was the one thing I did enjoy.
A big problem for me was that the characters are all unsympathetic. Tennessee is a narcissist, Frank is infuriating, and Anja is cold. I realize that was done on purpose, but for me it was kind of a lot. In particular it really bothered me how Tennessee and Frank would use their fame and charm to sexually take advantage of young boys. Again, I think it’s rather supposed to bother you, and good literature makes you uncomfortable, but there wasn’t really enough to redeem them.
As a love story I also found Frank and Tennessee lacking. They certainly aren’t presented as the ideal relationship. I guess what really bothered me about them was how they cared for each other, but refused to admit it to one another. They were also both really selfish, and thought often of themselves before their partner.
This book was certainly masterfully crafted. Frank and Tennessee leaped off the page as if Castellani personally knew them, and I was 100% convinced that Anja was a real person. The prose are lovely, this philosophizing is intense, and the descriptions are vivid. The time period and setting are captured picture perfectly. There is a nice balance between events that serve to develop characters and events that serve to drive the story forward. Even the multiple POVs and time periods are handled expertly. It was easy to tell who was talking and when.
But as outstanding as this novel was, I personally didn’t connect with it or enjoy it. I appreciated the brilliant writing, the insights in to these real men, and the LGBT history lesson, but I felt like I finished this book out of obligation rather than enjoyment.