This classic work of LGBT literature certainly lived up to the hype. James Baldwin’s fascinating characters still feel relevant today. The story, set in 1950s Paris, follows a bisexual man who is torn between choosing a conventional life with “mistress” friend Hella or following his deep desire for Giovanni.
Unlike John Irving’s bisexual Billy (in his new novel In One Person—which frequently references Giovanni’s Room), Baldwin’s David is not a character to be looked up to. His reprehensible treatment of Giovanni, which was just a manifestation of his contempt for his homosexual feelings, made him deeply unlikable (even his treatment of Joe in the beginning of the novel was an extreme turnoff to the character). Yet in this tragic tale, the likeability of the narrator did not affect my enjoyment of the novel itself.
Baldwin is superb as a storyteller, carefully plotting the ruin of his characters. The titular room, which begins as the place where David must live when he becomes to poor to pay rent on his current place, inevitably becomes a metaphor for David’s feelings. Although this novel does nothing to glorify the homosexual lifestyle, it does much to show the intolerance that permeated the world at the time (even Hella notes how difficult it is to be a woman), making this an important piece of literature for everyone.