Wednesday, 26 March 2008

a midsummer night's dream

The Feast Of Love
by Charles Baxter

Strong recommendations are hard to ignore. They don't always pan out, often the books which others feel most strongly about will disappoint when you read them but I always try. And a good thing too. The ever enthusiastic Scott Pack recommended I try this novel before the film version arrives on our shores and I have to say that having now seen the trailer (below) I'm glad that I did.

A writer called Charlie Baxter wakes one midsummer's night from a bad dream and goes for a stroll through his neighbourhood in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He walks to the University football stadium and from his seat in the stands sees a young couple making love on the fifty-yard line (a not uncommon experience apparently). Later he sees a friend, Bradley Smith, sitting on a bench. Smith tells him what his next book should be about and proceeds to tell him some tales of love. The rest of the novel hears tales from those others in his life, his philosophy teaching neighbour, two young lovebirds who work in his coffee shop and two soon-to-be-ex-wives along the way. There is a lot of humour to be found in such a universal subject, especially in the often sad figure of Smith. As described by Chloe, his employee, he is '...a gentleman, and sweet, and he's so smart you can tell thinking bothers him and takes up a great deal of his time'. In one hilarious episode he is forced to steal his own dog back from his sister after she refuses to return it after a period of care. The dog, also named Bradley, is his only source of love after the split from his first wife who embarks on a lesbian relationship. It is her who, after telling Baxter her side of the story, points out that:

You think that what I've just told you is an anecdote. But really it isn't. It's my whole life. It's the only story I have.

Baxter doesn't settle for just a humorous rendition of love. His neighbour, Harry Ginsberg, and his wife have a fractious relationship with their youngest son Aaron. Frequently he calls to shout abuse and accusation down the phone and then to demand money which Harry dutifully sends. He does after all love his son regardless. But his attempt to break this cycle of destructive behaviour ends in eventual silence from his prodigal son.

America, as everyone knows, is large enough to lose a child in...As the tongue goes to the missing tooth, so do we poke and pry at his absence. He is our null.

Perhaps the best example of the success with which Baxter mixes the tone of his writing, making it bittersweet, is in Bradley's recounting of his second honeymoon. In two pages Baxter surpasses the whole of On Chesil Beach. Through the seemingly simple language of a husband and wife discussing what love means to them whilst in post-coital slumber, you know that this marriage is doomed from the start.

I had my hand cupped around her breast, and she had her hand on my cheek, and we were having an argument, though still making it sound like love talk. "Bradley, what are we going to do here?"...You can have good sex on your honeymoon and still suspect there's something fishy going on.

The book also conceals its most powerful emotional hit in its young lovers, they have the most to learn of course, but the extent to which fate intervenes is unexpected even when it has been made painfully clear earlier on and Baxter skillfully brings his characters together near the novels close.

It is a surprisingly beautiful read and one I would recommend over the film which as you'll see below may not have the variety of tone and depth with which Baxter paints his picture of everyday lives.


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