REVIEW: Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Who says you can’t run away from your problems?
You are a failed novelist about to turn fifty. A wedding invitation arrives in the mail: your boyfriend of the past nine years is engaged to someone else. You can’t say yes–it would be too awkward–and you can’t say no–it would look like defeat. On your desk are a series of invitations to half-baked literary events around the world.
QUESTION: How do you arrange to skip town?
ANSWER: You accept them all.
What would possibly go wrong? Arthur Less will almost fall in love in Paris, almost fall to his death in Berlin, barely escape to a Moroccan ski chalet from a Saharan sandstorm, accidentally book himself as the (only) writer-in-residence at a Christian Retreat Center in Southern India, and encounter, on a desert island in the Arabian Sea, the last person on Earth he wants to face. Somewhere in there: he will turn fifty. Through it all, there is his first love. And there is his last.
Because, despite all these mishaps, missteps, misunderstandings and mistakes, LESS is, above all, a love story.
A scintillating satire of the American abroad, a rumination on time and the human heart, a bittersweet romance of chances lost, by an author The New York Times has hailed as “inspired, lyrical,” “elegiac,” “ingenious,” as well as “too sappy by half,” LESS shows a writer at the peak of his talents raising the curtain on our shared human comedy.
Dear Andrew Sean Greer,
My friend Sunita gifted your book to me. I attempted to start it couple of times, but had to put it down – I was not in the mood for literary fiction but also I was a little nervous knowing that the novel won a Pulitzer prize (simply because if I ended up hating it I would have first and foremost questioned myself rather than blamed the book.)
For the most part, I really loved the story of Arthur Less. Since I often review m/m romance I cannot stress this hard enough for a romance reader who will read this review – this book is NOT that, even though it does have a happy ending. This is literary fiction and the language is a big part of why I rate the story so highly. I often call myself a defective reviewer because I often miss problems with the writing style, but I hope I can at least note an excellent one and I loved how this book was written.
When I just started the book, I thought it was written in the third person POV present tense, only that was not quite true. The narrative shifts to the third person past tense, and sometimes (very few times) in the dreaded second person POV. And I thought the writer did it so elegantly and it didn’t disturb the flow of the story at all for me. I do confess though that I needed to know the identity of the narrator and at about half of the book when I strongly suspected that I looked in the end. I was right :), but that was the main reason why I knocked half the star off – not because I was not happy about the ending, I was, but because I was not sure how the narrator would know all the details which one would know from narrating in the third person limited POV
Of course beautiful writing or not, I still hoped to see the main character I can root for and sympathize with. And I found Arthur Less to be such a character even if he is presented as flawed person whose flaws sometimes were exaggerated for comic effect. I still thought the writer was gentle towards him. The plot is very simple and described in the blurb perfectly. Arthur is a writer who turns fifty and his last boyfriend Freddie of nine years whom he was stupid enough (mostly vain enough) to let go is marrying somebody else. Arthur is having a mid-life crisis and he is upset about Freddie’s upcoming nuptials which he didn’t want to attend, so he decides to accept invitations from all kinds of literary events and basically go travel across the globe. Basically Arthur is trying to run from himself and when did it ever work out?
I thought that while this was first and foremost a comic novel, the author managed to deal with some serious issues as well. When Arthur is feeling that he is probably the only man of his generation who reached fifty, one can think of Arthur as vain (and he is most certainly that), but we also know just how hard AIDS hit the gay men of his generation or around his generation and Arthur’s little exaggeration does not really feel as one to me.
Throughout the story Arthur is attempting to figure out how to accept turning fifty and how not to think about the love of his life too much. I thought he managed to do the first, but second – not at all. The memories of the guy he loved/s come on the page so often that one would feel the man is present with Arthur on his travels even though he is not.
“She turns to him: “What if one day you meet someone, Arthur, and it feels like it could never be anyone else? Not because other people are less attractive, or drink too much, or have issues in bed, or have to alphabetize every fucking book or organize the dishwasher in some way you just can’t live with. It’s because they aren’t this person.”
I did think Arthur learned some truths about himself throughout the book and that he didn’t want to run from himself any longer.
This is what he is thinking while in Morocco with some acquaintances he met there:
“It is, after all, almost a miracle they are here. Not because they’ve survived the booze, the hashish, the migraines. Not that at all. It’s that they’ve survived everything in life, humiliations and disappointments and heartaches and missed opportunities, bad dads and bad jobs and bad sex and bad drugs, all the trips and mistakes and face-plants of life, to have made it to fifty and to have made it here: to this frosted-cake landscape, these mountains of gold, the little table they can now see sitting on the dune, set with olives and pita and glasses and wine chilling on ice, with the sun waiting more patiently than any camel for their arrival.”
“There is an old Arabic story about a man who hears Death is coming for him, so he sneaks away to Samarra. And when he gets there, he finds Death in the market, and Death says, “You know, I just felt like going on vacation to Samarra. I was going to skip you today, but how lucky you showed up to find me!” And the man is taken after all. Arthur Less has traveled halfway around the world in a cat’s cradle of junkets, changing flights and fleeing from a sandstorm into the Atlas Mountains like someone erasing his trail or outfoxing a hunter—and yet Time has been waiting here all along.”
“He realizes that, even after Robert, he never truly let himself be alone. Even here, on this trip: first Bastian, then Javier. Why this endless need for a man as a mirror? To see the Arthur Less reflected there? He is grieving, for sure—the loss of his lover, his career, his novel, his youth—so why not cover the mirrors, rend the fabric over his heart, and just let himself mourn? Perhaps he should try alone.”
I hope that I gave you some glimpse of the writing but I cannot advise strongly enough – before deciding whether to get this book or not, grab the sample and read it first. It worked for me well, but you need to see if it works for you first
Grade – B+