Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

The easiest way for me to know that I really loved a book is to see if I took the time to mark pages. I’ve always been the type of book-lover who loathes writing in the margins and dog-earing pages, but I am a fan of using sticky tabs when the book is particularly good. This was my first time reading a James Baldwin book, and it’s the first fiction book I’ve marked up this year. It is so good, and it’s clear why he’s such a celebrated author.

The Rundown

Giovanni’s Room tells the story of David, an American who’s living in Paris. He has a fiancé named Hella who’s on vacation in Spain, and he’s spending a few months in Paris alone while she’s traveling. During this time he meets a man named Giovanni and falls in love. Giovanni’s Room tells the story of David’s relationship with Giovanni and the struggle he experiences with trying to suppress his feelings before his fiancé returns. 

Length: 169 pages

Additional Sections: None

Genre: Fiction

Year Published: 1956

The Good Stuff

I don’t know how much this story or the characters in it reflect Baldwin and his real life, but it seemed like he was writing about situations he knew very well (up until the very end). I appreciated how self-aware David was, and that he understood why he was trying to suppress his feelings. Even though Baldwin’s writing is beautiful, it was heartbreaking to read the story at times. The idea of gay marriage ever being legalized seemed so far away at the time that this was written, and his inner turmoil is palpable. Baldwin had so many insightful points and good one-liners that made the book exciting to read, and his style is delightful.

I’m not an expert on queer literature at all, but from the very few books I’ve read, I think that the way queer authors describe love makes it sound so much more gratifying. Straight, cis people rarely have to worry about people not accepting their love, and we’ve seen and heard so many stories about straight, cis love. Reading about David’s love for Giovanni made me so happy because it was unlocking an entire different part of David’s identity. He didn’t have to hide parts of himself, and every part of the book that described their time together was like poetry. I loved the scene where they first met, and I enjoyed how Baldwin took the reader through the same emotions David felt on the journey of falling for Giovanni. Every part of their relationship was inevitable and it made sense, and I had fun reading it.

David’s descriptions of Jacques and Guillaume were interesting to me. It was clear from the beginning that he had low opinions of both of them, and it felt like those opinions were based in jealousy. Jacques and Guillaume were older than David and much more open about their sexuality, and I think David was jealous of them. Even though they were kind of desperate, they never lived in shame about their sexual orientation. Baldwin mentioned in the book that humans are so uncomfortable watching monkeys eat their own poop because monkeys look so similar to humans, and I think this was a similar situation. I liked reading how Baldwin subtly displayed David’s disdain for Jacques and Guillaume because they were so unapologetic about what he was so scared to expose to the world 

If anything really exposed the age of this book, it was Baldwin’s description of Hella. Her desperation made it so clear that women’s options were much more limited back then, and she felt like she had to have a man to be taken care of. I couldn’t imagine exactly what her mind was going through when she was trying to ignore the feeling that they weren’t going to work, and I think it was smart of Baldwin to tell the story from David’s point of view. Even though this book is almost 65 years old, I think women still experience the strong desire (that sometimes borderlines on desperation) to be married that they will beg a man to stay – even if he’s gay. Hella was such an important part of the story, and she symbolized the narrative that David was clinging to so hard throughout the book, literally and figuratively. I think Hella as a character was 

It amazes me that this book was written in 1956. I’ve heard so much about James Baldwin, and he deserves all of the recognition he receives as a revolutionary writer. We’ve really just entered a time where black men have the space to express their sexual orientation and be celebrated for their femininity, and James Baldwin was writing about this over 60 years ago. I love this book because it was so far ahead of its time, and I hope that today’s authors continue to be as forward-thinking as Baldwin was in his writing. 

I wouldn’t change a thing about this novel. It is excellent from beginning to end, and it is top-notch fiction writing. 

Overall rating: 10/10

I hope you guys enjoyed this review. I’ve just picked up a whole bunch of books, so my next review will be all about love by bell hooks. I’ll be back with another review soon!

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