A story about a life lived but not yet over. On the cusp of 50, Arthur Less is both more than he was and not yet done growing.
You are a failed novelist about to turn fifty. A wedding invitation arrives in the mail: your boyfriend of the past nine years now engaged to someone else. You can’t say yes–it would all be too awkward–and you can’t say no–it would look like defeat. On your desk are a series of half-baked literary invitations you’ve received from around the world.
QUESTION: How do you arrange to skip town?
ANSWER: You accept them all.
If you are Arthur Less.
Thus begins an around-the-world-in-eighty-days fantasia that will take Arthur Less to Mexico, Italy, Germany, Morocco, India and Japan and put thousands of miles between him and the problems he refuses to face. What could possibly go wrong?
Well: Arthur will almost fall in love in Paris, almost fall to his death in Berlin, barely escape to a Moroccan ski chalet from a Sahara sandstorm, accidentally book himself as the (only) writer-in-residence at a Christian Retreat Center in Southern India, and arrive in Japan too late for the cherry blossoms. In between: science fiction fans, crazed academics, emergency rooms, starlets, doctors, exes and, on a desert island in the Arabian Sea, the last person on Earth he wants to see. Somewhere in there: he will turn fifty. The second phase of life, as he thinks of it, falling behind him like the second phase of a rocket. There will be his first love. And there will be his last.
A love story, a satire of the American abroad, a rumination on time and the human heart, 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.
This is my book club’s latest pick and, while we haven’t met to discuss, I wanted to get my ideas written down right away. Sometimes, book club members will point out to me all the wonders of the book. Other times, the club will convince me that the book was not as wonderful as I thought. I just want this post to be limited to my own thoughts.
I was, admittedly, a little determined to hate Arthur Less. I worried that he was the gay man’s version of Eat, Pray, Love (which I despised). How many of us have the ability to jaunt around the world when faced with heartbreak? Not I! I would have to attend the wedding in an old dress.
Oh, but Arthur won me over. Admittedly, slowly. Arthur has a chip on his shoulder that feels disproportionate to the actual burdens he is facing. He is the beginning of almost every problem he is experiencing but you can’t really help but like him in the end.
Perhaps it was because this book was full of little observations sprinkled throughout. It was less about the story and more about life with all the little friendships, observations, and feelings. Like this quote,
“We thought we were the only changing thing, the only variable in the world. That the objects and people in our lives are there for our pleasure, like the playing pieces of a game, and cannot move of their own accord. That they are held in place by our need for them, by our love. How stupid.”Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Who out there hasn’t felt the horrible realization that they were not the only main character out there in the world? I think we all fall into these little traps where we think our stories are the only ones being told and then something snaps us out of it. This book truly captured that feeling and flipped it over, examined it from all angles, and recognized it for what it was – a universal experience.
There are times when the book is a bit uneven. There is a narrator that pops in and out like a poorly tuned radio station. And the history of Arthur Less is woven in and out of the present a little higgledy-piggeldy for my taste. Arthur seems to experience life like cooks that don’t use seasoning. He does amazing things and has a never ending parade of friends, opportunities, and lovers. But, everything feels bland to him. Is there no wonder left? No spark? We are to understand that it is Arthur existing under a cloud of lost love but I felt like this was Arthur all along.
Others have complained that Arthur’s relationships with his friends, former lovers, and ex’s do not ring true. It really didn’t seem unrealistic to me at all. The gay community is not the straight community and trying to force traditional expectations, or storylines, onto gay characters won’t work.
Arthur sneaks up on you slowly but surely. He is a complicated character whose morals don’t align precisely with mine, but he felt real and good. In the end, can we ask to be more than that?
Tell me, please! What’s the last character that you fell in love with slowly?