Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Book Review: Two People by Donald Windham

Forest and his wife are two Americans traveling through Europe on an extended vacation. The longer they travel, the more they bicker over the smallest issues, and by the time they arrive in Rome, their frustrations with each other have reached the breaking point. The wife decides to fly back to New York, leaving Forest to share an apartment with a long-time friend, Robert, who happens to be gay.

Robert has a taste for young Roman boys and frequently picks up hustlers who hang out at the Spanish Steps. Robert explains to Forest that the hustlers are not gay, but have no qualms about earning a little spending money in bed -- a harmless pastime that proves fun for the man and profitable for the boys. Forest is intrigued by the idea, and it is at the Spanish Steps, while accompanying Robert on one of his boy hunts, that Forest first sees a dark-haired beauty, Marcello.

Marcello is forced to work for his father without pay, which means he has no money to properly entertain the girl he has a crush on. He becomes desperate not only to earn money, but also to somehow get out from under his dominating father and be his own man.

Much to his surprise, Forest finds himself attracted to Marcello, and begins to pay him to come to his bed on a weekly basis. As the two face their growing attraction, they must also keep their business arrangement secret, not only from Marcello’s family, but also from his girlfriend’s family.

The deeper Forest falls in love with the young Roman, the more frequent their meetings become, and the more money Marcello earns. Thus, the boy is able to spend more time and money wooing his girl, which allows the young couple to fall deeply in love. Forest and Marcello become dependant on each other, and the more they do, the more Forest pulls away from his wife, and the more Marcello pulls away from his father. But of course, there is no way to resolve this kind of relationship without someone losing what he most cherishes.

Two People is a beautiful novel. It is about passion, healing, trust, finding love in unexpected places, and the value of family. And the title, Two People, not only refers to the two main characters, but also indicates the two different cultures and the cultural differences these lovers must overcome.

Donald Windham writes characters that are richly drawn. Forest’s loneliness is revealed slowly through letters and phone conversations with his wife. He's a broken man haunted by a new and fresh kind of love that he never thought possible. He cannot even call it love, but he also cannot stand the time he is separated from the young man.
Marcello is a sensitive, caring soul, not at all like the other slick hustlers who are out to take whatever they can get, and although he has no deep romantic feelings for Forest, he loves spending time with the man, who treats him so well.

Just as important as the human characters is the city in which the story is set, Rome. I have spent much time in this magical city, and Windham’s descriptions took me right back to the narrow winding alleys, the colorful piazzas, the sidewalk cafes and crumbling monuments. He goes beyond a mere travelogue and really captures the spirit of the city and the culture.

The story very much reminds me of Tomas Mann’s Death In Venice, both in terms of story and style of writing, however, in Windham’s tale the lover’s relationship becomes much more intimate, and of course, to my way of thinking, the ending is much more satisfying. I was completely enchanted by this novel, and I look forward to reading more from Donald Windham.

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