Monday, March 11, 2013

For the Hopeless Romantics

The worst mistakes I’ve made have been the ones directed by sweet-natured hopefulness.

As my mother once told me, “They’re quite crazy, dear — men are. What you look for is one of them whose insanity is large enough, and calm and generous enough, to include you.”

The above quotes come from two different women, Kathryn and Diana. The women are referring to the same man, Bradley, whom they both marry for a brief time. Bradley is one of the dozen or so romantics in Charles Baxter’s novel “The Feast of Love” who tastes the bittersweet flavors of love.

Simply put, this novel is a masterpiece. Baxter’s insight into the hearts of men and women alike is astounding.

Every chapter starts off with a bit of uncertainty, as the first-person narrators take turns telling their stories. This could lead to confusion if Baxter wasn’t such a fucking amazing writer. A king of formal complexity, Baxter digs deep into a myriad of complex relationships and comes up with gems. He moves from one character to the next, but no two first-person narrators write in similar styles. Baxter has arranged perfectly the pieces of this love puzzle, and he maintains such effective control over the language that the reader is easily able to differentiate between all of the characters and relationships.

You know what? I’m not going to attempt to break down the characters and relationships in this novel. It would be tedious to read (and to write), and would most likely necessitate charts of the flow and pie variety. Instead, here are a few quotes (and brief character summaries) that exemplify Baxter’s profound analysis of this thing we call love.

A young woman named Chloe tries to make sense of her life after the loss of the man she loves:

“… I walk past these houses and I see all these domestic arrangements, I’d guess you’d call them. Women living with women. Women living with men. Men living with men. Women living along. Men living alone. Sane people and crazy people, people who have lost what once remained of their minds. The crazy ones are mostly crazy because love made them that way. I believe that.”

“Love is the first cousin of death, they’re acquainted with each other, they go to the same family reunions.”

Bradley, trying to figure out why he always ends up heart-broken:

“In truth, there are only two realities: the one for people who are in love or love each other, and the one for people who are standing outside all that.”

The novel is set in Michigan, and here’s a character commenting on the setting:  

“Because it’s the Midwest, no one really glitters because no one has to, it’s more a dull shine, like frequently used silverware. We were all presentable enough, but almost no one was making any kind of statement. Out here in Michigan, real style is too difficult to maintain; the styles are all convenient and secondhand. We’re all hand-me-down personalities. But that’s liberating: it frees you up for other matters of greater importance, the great themes, the sordid passions.”

And lastly, here’s one from Harry Ginsberg, a confidant and student of Soren Kierkegaard:

“The unexpected is always upon us. Of all the gifts arrayed before me, this one thought, at this moment in my life, is the most precious.”

That’s all I’ve got on this novel.

Women and men, the lonely and the fulfilled, the single, the divorced and everything in between, if you’re a romantic, read this novel and understand the beauty of Baxter.

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