Giovani’s Room by James Baldwin follows the main character David as he is alone in Paris after his then girlfriend, Hella, has fled to another country after David proposed to her. After she leaves David begins to become involved with a man named Giovanni. Much of the book is spent leading up to a big day.
Baldwin did such a wonderful job writing this novel, he allowed himself to take control of how queer characters were represented at the time of publication. There is nothing fun about this book, it is honest and it will take your breath away and leave you in pieces. David is the typical American guy in Paris trying to discover himself, while his wife is away he decides to hang out with an old friend Jacques in order to ask for money, – did I mention this book was set in Paris, after James Baldwin had fled America to stay in France with Nina Simone, anyways, this novel infuses hints of French in the text – They end up in a gay bar where they meet Giovanni and so starts their relation.
“People can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.”
David and Giovanni’s relationship is stressed to be one of actual love, they both play an active role in each other’s well-being. More so Giovanni to David, what starts off as a little fun turns into something more. Giovanni serves as a catharsis for David. A chance for David to be honest with himself. However, there is a struggle. The title of the book speaks to book in its entirety. Giovanni’s room, this dark claustrophobic room that David is trying to escape. This escape is not from harm, more so from the truth. Upon Hellas arrival David fled from Giovanni. David is now torn in this “love triangle” Stay with the woman he’s proposed to or someone he just met. James Baldwin holds no punches in this novel, from the homophobia Hella expresses when she meets Jacques and is put off by his mannerisms or the internalized homophobia expressed by David when he returns to find Giovanni has changed.
There are many themes that Baldwin explores in this novel, ones that don’t even directly involve sexuality. His writing truly embodies the Parisian experience from an outsider’s perspective. It can be argued that David’s experience could in part be Baldwin’s experiences while he was an American expatriate in Paris or James Baldwin could be living vicariously through the privilege of a fictional white character (David). While it is never expressed directly in the novel sexuality obviously plays a big factor here. While many people argue that David (and Giovanni) are gay men, I think rather that David might be bisexual as he never expresses he doesn’t love or isn’t attracted to Hella anymore just that he now has eyes for someone else. Baldwin also explores the topic of “Passing” in this novel, be it David’s attempts to pass as Paris native or passing as straight when the character might not be other-wise.
Baldwin does a wonderful job at writing this novel you really begin to feel like you’re reading this love novel and that there is going to be this happy ever after ending with a walk on the beach during sunset and everyone is going to be happy, but no, you finish this book in tears – remember I said James Baldwin holds no punches—the novel takes a surprising turn. He gives you just enough of the past, present and future to where you’re unable to put this down. I give this book 5 stars out of 5.