The Feast of Love, Charles Baxter, Pantheon Books, 2000, 308 pp
I read this because I was planning to watch the movie. The book was full of surprises. I knew that Charles Baxter taught at the University of Michigan, a school I once attended, but was delighted to find The Feast of Love set in Ann Arbor, MI, where I lived for many years. I often read just for the pleasure and experience of being taken to places I will probably never go to myself, but there is a unique pleasure to recognizing the details of weather, types of people, buildings and streets, while reading a work of fiction.
The novel opens with a writer named Charles Baxter who, suffering from insomnia, goes out for a midnight walk. He wanders into the U of M football stadium (one of those places I know well) and then on to a nearby park where he encounters a neighbor. They strike up a conversation and soon the neighbor, not a writer, starts to give Charles advice about writing a book, including a title and a plan: to talk to various people about love.
At this point, sixteen pages about a man taking a walk and describing what he sees followed by some clunky dialogue with his neighbor have me worried. I am definitely not hooked except by the fact that I know exactly where these two men are sitting. I decide to give both Charles Baxters one more chapter. (An odd point is that Bradley, the neighbor, has a dog named Bradley.)
By the end of Chapter Two I am intrigued. A story about Bradley and his first failed marriage has unfolded. I had a first failed marriage in Ann Arbor. So I keep going and more characters show up, who are all connected to Bradley in one way or another, who all have relationships of varying success. By the time Oscar and Chloe show up, a pair of quintessential Ann Arbor love children, I find myself completely involved in a feast of love that I hope will never end.
Chloe is my favorite character: she is young, reckless, intrepid and believes totally in love. There are several other female characters of different types and Baxter's writing chops are good enough that not one of them comes off as a type. Each is a fully realized personality. He is just as good with the male characters but especially with Harry Ginsberg, a professor of philosophy with a secret sorrow.
Bradley continues to be a clunky guy. It was his "bad dialogue" that I objected to, but that turns out to be a product of his personality and in fact, I know a guy from Ann Arbor who is amazingly like Bradley. Every once in a while though, Bradley comes up with a zinger, delivered in his clunky manner: "This song, 'My Funny Valentine,' as sung by Ella Fitzgerald, was going through my head as I walked. I always liked her; I liked it that she sang jazz while wearing glasses."
The Feast of Love, which is the name of Bradley's best painting (yes, he is a secret painter though he manages a franchise coffee place in the mall, the one I shopped in for years) turned out to be a little masterpiece of a book, celebrating people, life and love, with all the amazing moments of transcendence and many of the sorrowful depths of loss that most of us experience.
The very evening of the day I finished the book, I watched the movie. My advice is just read the book. Morgan Freeman as the Jewish philosophy professor? Please, skip the movie which does not begin to capture the magic of the book. Anyway, it is set in Portland, OR.
(This book is available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)