Less – book review

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer

I liked Less a lot.

Arthur Less is a white middle-aged, gay, American man walking around with his white middle-aged, gay American sorrows. Well, that is the character in a novel Less is writing. “It’s a little hard to feel sorry for a guy like that,” says a friend. True that.

But somehow we do! Arthur Less is a lovable white middle-aged, gay, American man. All the boys say he kisses like he means it.  And Less is nursing a broken heart. He is confused and struggling to understand the depths of his emotions. His much younger ex, Freddy, is about to marry someone else. Less lets him go, because he loves him so much and doesn’t believe he can make him happy. Less leaves town to escape the despair of loss.

I’d like to know about the junket he goes on. I love these stories where mid-list authors get invited to all-expenses-paid jollies to exotic places. I know lots of mid-list authors (admittedly all in New Zealand) and no one’s getting invited to ride camels in Morocco.

Less’s main claim to fame is as a groupie of the “Russian River School” of poets, the ex-lover of an older famous poet, with whom he once lived in a shack on a steep residential stairway in San Francisco where  “Bougainvillea bloomed on their porch like a discarded prom dress.”  (This book punches out evocative phrases like confetti.) But Less came late to the party and missed all the fun. His own book receives a prize in translation.

So there is Arthur Less, feeling mediocre and cut-up over his young lover; spiritually lost in New York, Mexico, Italy, Germany—where he gigs as a creative writing teacher with hilarious German—Paris, Morocco, Japan, India.  It’s Eat, Pray, Love all over again, only much more interesting.

I grew fond of Less. I like the things he notices and the fact that, despite his pining for Freddy, pinpoints of beauty still call to him.

“There is an amphora of petunia-like flowers on his private deck, worried day and night by little bees. On closer inspection, Less see that instead of stingers, they have long noses to probe the purple flowers with. Not bees: pygmy hummingbird moths. The discovery delights him to his core. ”

There is a lovely scene where Less is buying clothes. Who hasn’t looked in the mirror of a foreign shop and thought, mistakenly: this is perfect?

“…in this country, in this city, in this quarter, in this room—filled with exquisite outrages of fur and leather, subtleties of hidden buttons and seams, colors shaded only from film noir classics, with the rain-speckled skylight above and the natural fir flooring below, the few warm bulbs like angels hanged from the rafters, and Enrico clearly a bit in love with this charming American—Less looks transformed. More handsome, more confident. The beauty of his youth somehow taken from its winter storage and given back to him in middle age.”

Isn’t it lovely? The book is packed with elegant pictures that not only describe a place, but a mood and a person all together.

Less nails people like a confidant at a party, every passing character summed up in a perfect flash.

  • “Ah, the bohemian artist daughter,” he whispers to himself as a sloppy young blonde in a green jumpsuit and cocaine-brightened eyes takes his hand, or, as an elderly woman in a silk tunic nods his way, “Here is the mother who lost all her jewels at the casino.”
  • Then the doctor, an elderly woman in black glasses, leans into view. Thin, bony, creased with lines as if crumpled in a pocket for a long time, with a wattle under her chin. A white bob and Antarctic eyes.
  • Lewis, whom he met for the first time on that long road trip after college, who offered his cheap apartment on Valencia Street, above the communist bookstore, who introduced him to acid and electronic music.
  • dreamy, simple, lusty, bookish, harmless, youthful Freddy

Alongside love, the main theme of the story is coming of age. Less is hitting fifty. “Strange to be almost fifty, no? I feel like I just understood how to be young.” “Yes! It’s like the last day in a foreign country. You finally figure out where to get coffee, and drinks, and a good steak. And then you have to leave. And you won’t ever be back.”

His poignancy is not sad, because underlying the confusing emotions we know Arthur Less is lovable and will come through his troubles.  For all his despair, Less’s quips are full of joy and humour that lift the mood and makes us want to spend time in his company. There is a scrum at the airport in Morocco. “Is there an invasion he has not heard of? Is this the last plane out of France? If so: where is Ingrid Bergman?”

I didn’t know what to expect in the end. An acceptance, I suppose. Some new purpose for Arthur’s life that he discovers on his travels. But then (and I love it when an author pulls this one off) I felt the glimmer of a dawning realisation.

Not telling. But delightful.


Less, by Andrew Sean Greer. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2018




Author: Cristina Sanders Blog

Novelist, trail runner, book reviewer and blogger.

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