The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter
Vintage (2000). 308 pp.
I’ve realized–a little too late–that the best way to write a review for a book is not to watch the movie before writing the review. I’m going to try my best not to compare the movie to the book in this, because this isn’t a comparison/contrast. This is my opinions and analysis on the book alone.
It’s hard to decide who the central character of the book is. In most conventional stories, the narrator would be seen as the protagonist. But Feast of Love is not a conventional story. While the narrator of the story is Baxter himself, I infered the protagonist to be Bradley Smith. Every story does not necessarily revolve around Bradley but is connected to him somehow.
Feast of Love seems particularly appropriate especially in a time when the American culture seems to have fallen in love with the idea of falling in love. This being said, while the idea of falling in love is so appealing, the culture is completely unaware of what to do once already in love. Because, as seasoned veterens of this particular state of being will tell any novice, love is a verb, not a feeling. It requires hard work from both parties or it will undoubtedly fail. Baxter uses this idea when he creates the intertwining stories of Chloé and Oscar, Harry and Esther, Bradley and Kathryn, Kathryn and Jenny, Bradley and Diana, Diana and David, and finally, Bradley and Margaret.
Chloé and Oscar are the typical high-school-sweetheart-with-a-twist story. It is a modern-day Romeo and Juliet, complete with a less-than-ideal father that does not approve of his son’s choice in women, and the untimely–though foreseen–death of one of the lovers. They were the story that kept the book driving for me, I always wanted to see what would happen next with them. They had each other, and that’s all that they needed. A very popular philosophy among romantics in the culture. We want to feel like all we need is the heart of someone else and their presence standing beside us as we brave the harsh realities of the world.
Bradley is searching for the woman. He is a hopeless romantic that falls head-over-heels with every woman he looks at and once he’s fallen it is very difficult for him to get back up. Relationship #1: Kathryn. They split because Kathryn had fallen in love with Jenny, a woman on her softball team. But their troubles began before they even married. She tells Baxter in chapter three: “I kept reaching for his heart and finding nothing there to hold onto. . . . The worst mistakes I’ve made have been the ones directed by good-natured hopefulness” (31). Relationship #2: Diania. They divorced not even a month after their wedding. Bradley doesn’t go into details, but it was no secret through their story that she had a much stronger personality than him. This is not helped that for the majority of their relationship and nearly all of their marriage she was in love with David, the married man she had been sleeping with prior to and during her time with Bradley. And last but not least, Relationship #3: Margaret. Their meet-cute makes the reader smile a bit, and at the end of the story the reader is left with hope that this one will actually work out.
Bradley is the character embodiment of the American culture. He wants to be in love with the woman that will “make the world’s soul possible. . . make the world and keep it running” (173). For Bradley, love is a state of being that exists completely outside of the realm of humanity. It pulls us in and spins us around. If we survive the hurricane, we survive the love. If not, we’re tossed out. There is no action on our part to keep love going. All we’re supposed to do is legalize the marriage and make the love. All else is a matter of fate.
Harry and Esther Ginsberg are the couple that exhibit the true nature of love. They’ve been together for years, and they pull their strength from each other to get through the day. Their life is not storybook-perfect. Their youngest son would rather them dead and only calls them to yell at them for ruining his life and then to ask for money. They have come to the end of their rope with him, but their love for him still shows.
Baxter uses Harry to insert the teachings of Kierkegaard. Since they are the most experienced love story in the book, the reader might trust Kierkegaard more coming from Harry’s perspective. What Kierkegaard states is this: no one really knows what love is. This is a bold statement for Baxter to put into a book that essentially tries to define love. To state within the first hundred pages that the intention of the book is impossible to achieve sets up the author for a watershed reception. The power that Baxter has through his writing is what saves him. We believe the stories partly because of the honesty of the author that he has no intention of actually defining love, he simply wants to take part in the conversation. And he does so beautifully–reading this book was akin to reading a sort of poetry. Baxter pulls the reader in and does not let go until the last page.