|Among literary cognoscenti, Charles Baxter has a well-deserved reputation as one of America's finest writers. Best known for his short stories, Baxter has also produced three novels. His fourth, The Feast of Love, combines the best of both genres--with a light dusting of metafiction to sweeten the dish. The book begins with Baxter himself waking from a nightmare and going for a moonlit walk through his hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. While sitting on a park bench, he is joined by an acquaintance of 12 years--and, incidentally, one of the main characters in the novel. It is Bradley who gives Baxter the name for the novel he's currently struggling to write, and even offers himself as a character: |
You should call it The Feast of Love. I'm the expert on that. I should write that book. Actually, I should be in that book. You should put me into your novel. I'm an expert on love. I've just broken up with my second wife, after all. I'm in an emotional tangle. Maybe I'd shoot myself before the final chapter. Your readers would wonder about the outcome. But why stop there? Bradley goes on to suggest that he send people to Baxter, "actual people, for a change, like for instance human beings who genuinely exist, and you listen to them for a while. Everybody's got a story, and we'll just start telling you the stories we have"--a sly tip-off to the reader of this elegant, quirky, and wholly engrossing novel that the writer may be no more reliable than his narrators.
What follows is a chronicle of love--the mad kind, the bad kind, and the kind that sustains us when everything else is gone. In addition to Smith, we meet ChloÃ©, a young waitress at Bradley's espresso bar, and her ex-junkie boyfriend, Oscar; Bradley's next door neighbors, Harry Ginsburg, an elderly professor of philosophy, and his wife, Esther; and Kathryn and Diana, Bradley's two ex-wives. The characters take turns narrating, often commenting on and correcting versions of events mentioned by other characters in previous chapters, and occasionally advising Baxter on the progress of his novel: "Don't threaten people, especially lawyers" legal eagle Diana warns "Charlie" shortly before she launches into her own story. "Don't threaten your own characters. It's for your own good. You'll wind up in a mess of litigation and... subplots." But in The Feast of Love, God is in the subplots--Oscar and ChloÃ©'s involvement in the porn industry; Esther and Harry's agonized relationship with their mentally ill son; Bradley's travails in love, art, and dog ownership. As the novel progresses, these separate strands gradually merge, and not even an unexpected tragedy can dim the luster of this moonstruck romance. For by the time Baxter brings his tale of love and loss and redemption to a close, his characters have all found their way to the feast--bittersweet though some of the dishes may be. --Alix Wilber