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From the outset this is a beautifully-written and well-crafted book. DeSimone is clearly a writer who considers each sentence, and the result is good, clean, succinct prose. As we’re introduced to each character, DeSimone deftly illustrates their key character traits. There is no awkward dialog or clunky inserted descriptions in later scenes. One feels in good hands as he proceeds through the story, which spans a four year period (2002-2006) in the lives of a group of close-knit gay friends in Boston.
They’ve shared a lot of history together, coming out during the age of Reagan and living through the darkest periods of the AIDS epidemic—two of the five main characters are struggling with HIV disease: Bill, for whom protease inhibitors have neutralized his illness, and Edward, for whom they have not. It is Edward who is the sun around which the others orbit, not only because he is dying but because he is the most enigmatic and comes to symbolize the questions in the hearts of each of the rest. The short and poignant photographic prologues focusing on Edward at the beginning of each chapter keep the book focused on this and are especially effective in unifying the story around its central concerns.
A large part of the story focuses on settling down and partnership. But each character has a very different idea of what that can and should be, and it’s a pleasure to eavesdrop on their many debates concerning today’s most talked-about gay issue: marriage. Greg is romantic and focused on the ring, Edward sees marriage’s legal implications, and Bill just sees it as the maturation of his romantic life. Victor is simply conventional (Greg’s husband), while Harlan rolls his eyes when he’s not completely horrified. What makes DeSimone’s book such an important meditation on the issue is that he’s not pushing a particular viewpoint so much as laying out the territory.
Most readers will end up identifying with one character above all the others, as is common in a story featuring a set of colorful people, all with their own unique histories and personalities. I was reminded of The Big Chill, Sex and the City and Felice Picano’s Like People in History, which this book bears a resemblance to as it charts a course through the turbulent waters of recent gay life.
One of the more finely drawn characters is the quick-witted Harlan. He is the funniest and most resistant to gay coupling. He continues to poke fun at the others, with brilliant and pithy one-liners and comebacks, while pulling at the reins of any relationship he gets involved in. Nor is he averse to hooking up. Harlan is the critical one, always the contrary, who keeps the rest on their toes. But, of course, each contributes certain assets that hold the group together as a family.
If I were to voice one complaint, it would be that sometimes the story felt slightly claustrophobic—with all the characters encased in their particular social fish bowls. There are passing references to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and families of origin, but while all of these guys have lived through a rather dramatic series of historical milestones, I didn’t feel the world outside of their personal concerns quite enough, nor the larger diversity of the gay community. A sense of larger social context could have strengthened the story. And DeSimone was a little hard on the straight folks in the book and poor Victor, though I think a lot of gay readers will appreciate his judgments, which are often as not delivered humorously. There were a few subplots that I was interested in as well that weren’t resolved, but then that would invite a sequel, which I’d be eager to read.
DeSimone has given us a big-hearted, earnest novel that does what novels should do: he’s painted a picture of the intimate lives of people living through a particular time, and he’s given us a character—Edward—and a story that truly resonates.
The Heart’s History
By Lewis DeSimone
Paperback, 9781590213421, 308 pp.