Not quite famous novelist Arthur Less desperately wants to get out of the country. He hasn’t committed a crime and he isn’t on the run, but he wants an iron clad reason not to attend his long term lover’s wedding. So he goes through his junk mail, accepting teaching appointments at random German universities, attending literary awards he has never heard of in Italy, taking on a food writing assignment in Japan, and agreeing to attend a friend of a friend’s birthday celebration in Morocco. During the course of his travels, Less accumulates a series of embarrassing moments, a series of surprise victories, he has several flings, and he turns fifty.
Although Less won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, I would consider this to be more of an escapist read rather than serious literary fiction. It is certainly a well-written book, but it reminded me somewhat of Bridget Jones’s Diary, if Bridget had been a middle-aged white gay male. Like with Bridget, I sympathized with Less, cringed with Less, laughed at Less, and was happy when he had a (usually accidental) victory. Both Less and Bridget have a relatable yet slightly cartoonish quality, like if the most awkward moments of your life were someone else’s entire life.
While Less is clownish in some ways, he is also more significant than he realizes. Having once been the lover of a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, he has always felt inferior, like a person always destined to live on the edge of genius and never be the genius. As a result, he does not realize that his work has been read and loved by people around the world or that every man he has been romantically involved with has fallen in love with him.
The true failings of Less are not that he is innocent and prone to disaster. It is that he does not know how to be in love and that he does not know how to grow older. Less has had two great loves in his life–one much older and the other much younger–and he has lost them both due to being unfaithful as well as keeping himself emotionally unavailable. He also fears age, feeling that he does not even know how to be a mature gay man. Reflecting on the generation before him, Less thinks, “He has never seen another gay man age past fifty, none except Robert. He met them all at forty or so but never saw them make it much beyond; they died of AIDS, that generation. Less’s generation often feels like the first to explore the land beyond fifty.”
While Arthur Less has his flaws, this is ultimately a comedy, and traveling the world with Arthur Less is a great joy. I loved this–and the main character–throughout the book, but when I came to the end, it just felt like the perfect end to Less’s journey. I would recommend this for anyone in search of a fun, lighthearted read, as well as to anyone who would like to read more books about LGBTQ characters. For more October book reviews, please check out Barrie’s blog.
FCC Notice: I bought my own copy.
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