Review: A Single Man, by Christopher Isherwood

I hate it when a much-lauded book just doesn’t grab me.  I’m sure it’s me, and not the book.

A Single Man takes place over 24 hours in 1962.  George is a 58-year-old Englishman, and a university professor somewhere near Los Angeles.  Several months earlier his partner Jim died suddenly, and George is trying to put his life back together.  He goes through the motions of his daily routine, teaches his English classes, speculates on his students’ lives outside of class, chats with neighbors, and visits a woman friend.  He is haunted by memories of Jim and their life together — a life that, in 1962, was a closely guarded secret.

This book is billed as “one of the first and best novels of the gay liberation movement.” I probably don’t understand the movement’s history well enough to appreciate the significance of this work, and viewed through a 21st-century lens, it’s not as daring as it was in the 1960s.  But the blurb on my edition also describes it as “constantly funny, surprisingly sad,” and for me, it failed to delivery.  I couldn’t muster the expected emotions.  George certainly mourned Jim, but I didn’t feel his grief.  I saw him simply putting one foot in front of the other and erecting a barrier around himself, one I thought as the reader I’d be able to break through.

So the book didn’t work for me, but I haven’t given up.  It was made into a film starring Colin Firth, and I’ve just discovered it’s available from my local library.  This could be the subject of a future “book vs. movie” post!

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12 thoughts on “Review: A Single Man, by Christopher Isherwood

    • Oh Adam, I was thinking of you as I wrote this review! I feel terrible, really I do. This is a social issue that’s very important to me and I feel like I need to turn in my Democratic Party membership card. 🙂

  1. I think this is in the 1001 Books you’re supposed to read before you die, but I’ve never read anything that makes me want to try it out…

    • I didn’t know it was on the list, Lisa. It doesn’t surprise me — and that list is so eclectic that some books are bound to appeal more than others.

    • Thomas, I understand that. I struggled with this review because I’m familiar with the social issues but didn’t want to come across as a “know-it-all straight person”. My issue was more with the writing. I knew George had to be absolutely torn up inside, all the more so because he couldn’t share his grief with others he was close to. But instead of feeling his emotion, I was only “allowed” to see what others saw. And I guess I understand why Isherwood did that, so perhaps I was just looking for a different type of reading experience.

  2. Never seen the movie or heard of the book, but yeah maybe you will enjoy the movie more …

  3. I read “Goodbye to Berlin” and enjoyed it, though it wasn’t quite as good as I expected. “Mr. Norris Changes Trains” is lurking somewhere on the tbr mountain, I believe, so I shall have to see what I think of that!

  4. I haven’t read the book, but the much-lauded film didn’t work for me, even though I usually love Colin Firth. It all looked very beautiful, but was just too much style over substance and, as you say with the book, I didn’t care about the characters (I did fall asleep half way through though so it’s possible it got better!). Will be interested to see what you make of it.

    • Claire, now you’ve really piqued my interest in the film. Life’s a bit busy at the moment so not sure when I’ll get to it but am looking forward to it for sure.

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