Feast of Love (Baxter)

The Feast of Love 
Charles Baxter, 2000
Random House
320 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780307387271


Summary
Late one night, a man wakes from a bad dream and decides to take a walk through his neighborhood. After catching sight of two lovers entangled on the football field, he comes upon Bradley Smith, friend and fellow insomniac, and Bradley begins to tell a series of tales—a luminous narrative of love in all it’s complexity.

We meet Kathryn, Bradleys’ first wife, who leaves him for another woman, and Diana, Bradley’s second wife, more suitable as a mistress than a spouse. We meet Chloe and Oscar, who dream of a life together far different from the sadness they have known. We meet Esther and Harry, whose love for their lost son persists despite his contempt for them. And we follow Bradley on his nearly magical journey to conjugal happiness. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—May 13, 1947
Where—Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
Education—B. A., Macalester College; Ph.D., State University
   of New York, Buffalo
Awards—Award in Literature, American Academy of Arts and
   Letters; Prix St. Valentine for The Feast of Love
Currently—lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota


Charles Baxter lives in Minneapolis and teaches at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of eight other works of fiction, including most recently Believers, Harmony of the World, and Through the Safety Net. The Feast of Love was a finalist for the National Book Award. (From the publisher.)

More
Although his body of work includes poetry and essays, award-winning writer Charles Baxter is best known for his fiction — brilliantly crafted, non-linear stories that twist and turn in unexpected directions before reaching surprising yet nearly always satisfying conclusions. He specializes in portraits of solid Midwesterners, regular Joes and Janes whose ordinary lives are disrupted by accidents, chance encounters, and the arrival of strangers; and his books have garnered a fierce and loyal following among readers and critics alike.

Born in Minneapolis in 1947, Baxter was barely a toddler when his father died. His mother remarried a wealthy attorney who moved the family onto a sprawling estate in suburban Excelsior. From prep school, Baxter was expected to attend Williams, but instead he chose Macalester, a small, liberal arts college in St. Paul. Intending to pursue a career in teaching and writing, he enrolled in the Ph.D. program at the State University of New York at Buffalo, attracted by a faculty that included such literary luminaries of the day as John Barth and Donald Barthelme.

After grad school, Baxter moved to Michigan to teach at Wayne State University in Detroit. He spent more than a decade concentrating on writing poetry, but after a particularly discouraging dry spell, he decided to try his hand at fiction. He labored long and hard over three novels, none of which was accepted for publication. Then, just as he was about to give up altogether, he attempted one last trick. He whittled the three novels down to short stories, replacing epic themes, extraordinary characters, and ambitious story arcs with the small, quiet stuff of ordinary life. It was a good decision, In 1984, his first collection of short fiction, Harmony of the World, was published. Another anthology followed, then a debut novel. Published in 1987, First Light charmed readers with its unusual structure (the story unfolds backwards in time) and a cast of richly, draw, fully human characters.

Baxter continued to publish throughout the 1990s, alternating between short and full-length fiction, and with each book he garnered larger, more appreciative audiences and better reviews. His breakthrough occurred in 2000 with The Feast of Love, a novel composed of many small stories that form a single, cohesive narrative. Described by the New York Times as "rich, juicy, laugh-out-loud funny and completely engrossing," The Feast of Love was nominated for a National Book Award.

"Every time I've finished a book, it feels to me as if the washrag has been rung out," Baxter confessed in a 2003 interview. Yet he keeps on crafting absorbing stories infused with quiet (sometimes absurdist) wit and a compassionate understanding of the human condition. A longtime director of the creative writing program at the University of Michigan, he is known as a generous mentor, and several of his students have gone on to forge successful literary careers of their own.

Extras
From a 2003 interview with Barnes & Noble:

• My novels are sometimes criticized for being episodic, or structurally weird. And they are! I like them that way. It's fairly late in the day — 2003 as I write — in the history of the novel, and I think it's fair for writers to mess around with that form, and to stop thinking that they have to write books that move smoothly from the first act to the second act, and then to the climax and the denouement. I like digressions, asides, intrusions, advice, anything that gets in the way of a smooth narcotic flow. New novels should not look like old novels, except when they want to.

• My father died when I was eighteen months old, and I expect the unexpected to happen in life and in art, and my fiction is full, or loaded down, with unexpected fatalities of one kind or another. For me, that's realism."

• I had an unhappy childhood that I thought was happy, and I dove into books as inspiration and relief and comfort and security and information about what people did and how they thought. I can still get happy and sentimental just over the thought of libraries — the image of a woman sitting quietly and reading is a terrifically sexy image for me.

• Like many writers, I'm private and quiet and observant and bookish. For a physical outlet, I lift weights at the gym two or three times a week, and I don't quit unless and until I've worked up a fairly good sweat. Many writers need an outlet like that to counter the sedentary nature of what they do. I don't have any wild delusions about the greatness of my work: I am happy to work humbly in this field where so many writers have created so many immortal manifestations of the mind and spirit. As Henry James said, you work in the dark; you do what you can; the rest is the madness of art.

When asked what book most influenced his life as a writer, he answered:

For many writers, the experience of falling in love with a book has to happen in high school, or it won't happen at all. Love at that age is mad love. The book that did it for me at that period in my life was Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native, with its voluptuous melancholy; I don't think I had ever imagined that the word "sorrow" could be deployed in so many densely lyrical ways. The book's dramatic idea of the outsider struck a chord in me, since in those days I felt as if I was outside everything of any importance. The other book that did it for me was Melville's Moby-Dick, whose language struck me as wonderfully over-the-top. I found myself pleasurably lost in it and never wanted it to end. (Bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)



Book Reviews
[Baxter] ratchets up a sense of the odd shadowy night world in much the same way that a dream pun resonates far deeper than your average play on words. What's more, every magical promise implicit in this night is kept: The Feast of Love is as precise, as empathetic, as luminous as any of Baxter's past work. It is also rich, juicy, laugh-out-loud funny and completely engrossing. Extraordinary.... What's amazing—but never distracting—is how distinctive Baxter makes the different voices of all these characters.
Jacqueline Carey - New York Times Book Review


A near perfect book, as deep as it is broad in its humaneness, comedy and wisdom.
Washington Post Book World


Feast of Love is a radiant work of art that evokes the romance that the characters describe. To find out how things play out for this extraordinary bunch of ostensibly ordinary Midwesterners, pick up this funny, sad, gorgeous novel.
Gabriella Stern - Wall Street Journal


Baxter (First Light, Harmony of the World, Believers) has for too long been a writer's writer whose books have enjoyed more admirers than sales. Pantheon appears confident that his new novel can be his breakout work. It certainly deserves to be. In a buoyant, eloquent and touching narrative, Baxter breaks rules blithely as he goes along, and the reader's only possible response is to realize how absurd rules can be. Baxter begins, for example, as himself, the author, waking in the middle of the night and going out onto the predawn streets of Ann Arbor (where Baxter in fact lives). Meeting a neighbor, Bradley Smith, with his dog, also called Bradley, he is told the first of the spellbinding stories of love—erotic, wistful, anxious, settled, ecstatic and perverse—that make up the book, woven seamlessly together so they form a virtuosic ensemble performance. The small cast includes Bradley, who runs the local coffee shop called Jitters; Diana, a tough-minded lawyer and customer he unwisely marries after the breakup of his first marriage to dog-phobic Kathryn; Diana's dangerous lover, David; Chloe and Oscar, two much-pierced punksters who are also Jitters people and who enjoy the kind of sensual passion older people warn will never last, but that for them lasts beyond the grave; Oscar's evil and lustful dad; philosophy professor Ginsberg, who pines for his missing and beloved son, Aaron; and Margaret, the black emergency room doctor with whom Bradley eventually finds a kind of peace. The action takes place over an extended period, but such is the magic of Baxter's telling that it seems to be occurring in the author's mind on that one heady midsummer night. His special gift is to catch the exact pitch of a dozen voices in an astutely observed group of contemporary men and women, yet retain an authorial presence capable of the most exquisite shadings of emotion and passion, longing and regret. Some magical things seem to happen, even in Ann Arbor, but the true magic in this luminous book is the seemingly effortless ebb and flow of the author's clear-sighted yet deeply poetic vision.
Publishers Weekly


The different longings people subsume within the actions of loving others are explored with wry affection: an extremely likable third novel from the celebrated author (Believers, 1997; Shadow Play, 1993, etc.) It consists of stories told to author Charles Baxter by several of his mutually involved neighbors, beginning when Charlie, strolling his hometown's nearly deserted streets on an insomniac midsummer night, sneaks into Michigan Stadium and observes a young couple making love on the football field's 50-yard line, then meets his neighbor Bradley Smith, who (not entirely credibly) pours out the tale of losing his wife Kathryn to another woman. The scope steadily expands, as we become acquainted with Kathryn's version of her marriage's failure, Bradley's dog (also named Bradley—a rather Anne Taylor-touch); then, in roughly this order, teenaged Chloé (who waitresses at the coffee shop Bradley runs) and her "reformed boy outlaw" sweetheart Oscar; Bradley's next-door neighbor Harry Ginsberg, a doggedly idealistic philosophy professor whose familial happiness is threatened by the anger of his estranged son; Bradley's new wife Diana (who continues her affair with her married lover David); and, yes, others. The Feast of Love achieves an eccentric, fascinating rhythm about halfway through, when its characters' now-established individual stories begin bouncing off one another intriguingly. The novel is quite skillfully (if unconventionally) plotted, and grips the reader's emotions surely as Baxter connects its distinctive dots during some absorbing climactic actions, when the genuine love between Chloe and Oscar (two wonderfully realized characters) takes on an unexpected maturity and gravity. Just a shade too warm and fuzzy to be fully successful, but awfully entertaining nevertheless. And the Joycean monologue (spoken by Chloe) and graceful acknowledgement of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, with which Baxter ends this rueful tale of romantic folly, are the perfect touches.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. As the book opens, the character Charles Baxter leaves his house for a walk in the middle of the night. As he passes an antique mirror at the foot of the stairs, he describes the mirror as "glimmerless," a word he has used to describe himself [p. 4]. What does he mean by this? At the end of the novel, as dawn arrives, he tells us that "all the voices have died out in my head. I've been emptied out.... My glimmerlessness has abated, it seems, at least for the moment" [p. 307]. What is the real Charles Baxter suggesting about the role of the author in The Feast of Love?

2. Does Baxter's decision to give the job of narration over to the characters themselves create a stronger sense of realism in the novel? Does it offer a greater possibility for revelation from the characters? What is the effect of this narrative technique on the reading experience?

3. Does Bradley become more interesting as the novel unfolds? Kathryn says of him, "He turned himself into the greatest abstraction" [p. 34]. His neighbor Harry Ginsberg says, "He seemed to be living far down inside himself, perhaps in a secret passageway connected to his heart" [p. 75], while Diana says, "What a midwesterner he was, a thoroughly unhip guy with his heart in the usual place, on the sleeve, in plain sight. He was uninteresting and genuine, sweet-tempered and dependable, the sort of man who will stabilize your pulse rather than make it race" [p. 140]. Which, if any, of these insights is closest to the truth?

4. The novel takes its title from a beautiful, light-filled painting that Bradley has made and hidden in his basement. When Esther Ginsberg asks him why there are no people in the painting, Bradley answers, "Because...no one's ever allowed to go there. You can see it but you can't reach it" [p. 81]. Does the fact that Bradley has been able to paint such a powerful image suggest that he is closer to attaining it than he thinks?

5. Why does Chlo? go to see Mrs. Maggaroulian, the psychic? Is the fortune-teller's presence in the novel related to Harry Ginsberg's belief that "the unexpected is always upon us" [pp. 290, 302]? How might this belief change the way one chooses to live?

6. What are Diana's motivations for marrying Bradley? Does her reasoning process [p. 138] seem plausible, or is it the result of desperation and self-deception? Is Diana, at the outset, the least likable character in the novel? How does she manage to work her way into the reader's affections?

7. Bradley is a person who baffles himself. He says, "I need a detective who could snoop around in my life and then tell me the solution to the mystery that I have yet to define, and the crime that created it" [p. 106]. Why, if his first wife Kathryn has a profound fear of dogs, does he take her to visit a dog pound? Why, if his second wife Diana is afraid of open spaces, does he take her to the wide skies and watery horizons of Michigan's Upper Peninsula? Why does he often act in ways that will compromise his happiness? Is Bradley like most people in this unfortunate tendency?

8. The characters often define themselves in strikingly economical statements. For instance, Diana says, "I lack usable tenderness and I don't have a shred of kindness, but I'm not a villain and never have been" [p. 258]; and Bradley says, "My inner life lacks dignity" [p. 58]. Do the characters in this novel display an unusual degree of insight and self-knowledge? Are some more perceptive about themselves than others?

9. In his description of the shopping mall in which Jitters is located, Bradley remarks, "The ion content in the oxygen has been tampered with by people trying to save money by giving you less oxygen to breathe. You get light-headed and desperate to shop.... Don't get me wrong: I believe in business and profit" [p. 110]. In what ways is Bradley not a typical businessman? How does Jitters differ from a caf? such as Starbucks? What observations does the novel make about America's consumer-driven culture?

10. Throughout literature (for example, in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet), the traditional boy-meets-girl plot is complicated by the presence of a father or parents who refuse to sanction the union of the lovers. Can Oscar's father be seen in this traditional role—as a potential threat to the happiness of Chlo? and Oscar? Or does he represent something far more threatening and evil? What is his effect on the latter part of the novel?

11. Harry Ginsberg tells Bradley about a poem his mother used to recite, about a dragon with a rubber nose. "This dragon would erase all the signs in town at night. During the day, no one would know where to go or what to buy. No signs anywhere. Posters gone, information gone.... A world without signs of any kind.... Very curious. I often think about that poem" [p. 88]. Bradley takes up the idea, and begins to draw pictures of the dragon. How does the parable of the dragon resonate with some of the larger questions and ideas in the novel?

12. Speaking of Oscar, Chlo? says, "Words violate him. And me, Chlo?, I'm even more that way. There's almost no point in me saying anything about myself because the words will all be inhuman and brutally inaccurate. So no matter what I say, there's no profit in it" [p. 63]. Does Chlo? underestimate her own talent for self-expression? Do her sections of the narrative belie her opinion about the uselessness of words?

13. How would you characterize Chlo?'s unique brand of intelligence? What are her strengths as a person? Is it likely that she will survive the loss of Oscar, and the challenge of single parenting, without any diminishment of her spirit?

14. Chlo? believes that she once saw Jesus at a party; she also believes in karma and similar forms of spiritual justice. Harry Ginsberg, a scholar of the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, remarks, "The problem with love and God... is how to say anything about them that doesn't annihilate them instantly with wrong words, with untruth.... We feel both, but because we cannot speak clearly about them, we end up—wordless, inarticulate—by denying their existence altogether, and pfffffft, they die" [p. 77]. Why do questions of spirituality and the meaning of human existence play such a major role in The Feast of Love?

15. In The Feast of Love, is sex an accurate gauge of the state of two people's emotional relationship to each other? If sex is an expression of Chlo? and Oscar's joy in each other, does it make sense that they attempt to use it to make some sorely needed money? Is it puritanical to assume that they are making a mistake? Why are they ill suited for the pornography business?

16. Based on what happens in The Feast of Love, would you assume that the author believes that love is necessary for happiness? Although they begin the novel mismatched, Bradley, Kathryn, and Diana eventually all find themselves with the partners they truly desire. Is it surprising that the novel offers so many happy endings? How does the tragedy of Oscar's death fit in with the better fortunes of the other characters? Why has Baxter chosen to quote Prokofiev [p. 237] to open the section called "Ends"?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

top of page (summary)

Site by BOOM Boom Supercreative

LitLovers © 2017