Book Review: "Giovanni’s Room" by James Baldwin

Set in 1950s Paris, a young American man named David is caught in at a personal crossroads.  He is torn between two relationships – one that is expected and fits in with societal norms, that he keeps up for only those reasons and not for love.  The other relationship not, but is filled with raw passion and love.  He fights the passionate affair because he cannot see a future with a man, and tries to keep the “normal” relationship with the woman, Hella, because he thinks it is something he must do.  Things come to a head when Hella returns to Paris and David chooses to be with her instead of Giovanni…

This is a terribly sad and emotional story.  It is just heartbreaking how much David is holding back from true love.  How different this could be if David was able to accept his homosexuality; if he was able to allow himself to open completely to Giovanni.

Giovanni’s room, as in the actual physical location in the book, became a metaphor for David’s breaking point.  He all at once needed to get out of Giovanni’s room where he had been living, and get away from Giovanni, because if he stayed, he would’ve given into his true feelings.  He would’ve been forced to really face them, and he couldn’t do it.  After everything went bad, he had to leave Paris – the entire city was too much for him – but he found that you can’t really run away and it will go away.  I mean, he’s grappling with his own feelings – those go with you when you change addresses.

I fell in love with Baldwin’s writing style as well.  This is the first I’ve read of him, and it took a few pages to get used to the long sentences that tease a stream of consciousness feel.  But it was all so very controlled – like David.  It is beautiful in its sadness.

Giovanni’s Room
by James Baldwin
Vintage, 2013.  First published 1956
176 pages
Source:  Gift


4 thoughts on “Book Review: "Giovanni’s Room" by James Baldwin

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  1. Baldwin is such a stunningly beautiful writer. I'm glad you read this and shared your thoughts. Giovanni's Room is one I've read a few times, and probably the only well-known gay text (with the exception of The Boys in the Band) to make a primary appearance in my dissertation. This narrative has so much depth, so many layers, it really invites many readings.


  2. I read this a couple of years ago. Remember that scene that describes the squalor of G's room> David can’t handle Giovanni’s room and readers who’ve lived with a hoarder will stare into space with throat-tightened recognition at “punishment and grief” in this passage: “But it was not the room’s disorder which was frightening, it was the fact that when one began searching for the key to this disorder one realized that it was not be found in any of the usual places. For this was not a matter of habit or circumstance or temperament; it was a matter of punishment and grief.”

    David realizes that his love is Giovanni’s only hope out of physical and psychological squalor but he breaks up with Giovanni anyway, with tragic results. I think this novel is not just about being a gay male but about loneliness, hostility, deception, dominance, power, and awful things people do to each when they feel lost, when they don’t know who they are or what they want.


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