It’s a bright, refreshingly “unhumid” morning, and I’m enjoying having the windows open again after days of air conditioning. As I drink my steaming cup of plain old orange pekoe tea (and no treat!), I’m thinking about a recent book club meeting.
My “Friends” book group met last night to discuss The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, and the conversation was certainly animated. In case you have not read this American classic, here’s a quick summary: Set in a small unnamed southern town in Georgia in the 1930s, this novel is told from various points of view and spans about two years, ending in 1939. It opens with one of the main characters, Mr John Singer, a deaf-mute, enjoying a wonderfully close friendship with another deaf-mute, Spiros Antonapoulos, until Antonapoulos develops mental health issues and is put into an asylum. Singer then moves into his own room and has to make his way in life alone, without any other real connections. Jake Blount is another major character, a labour agitator who blows into town, gets drunk and is generally irritating to the others, until he befriends Singer and gets his act together… sort of. Then there is Bartholomew “Biff” Brannon, owner of the New York Cafe diner, an observant man in an unhappy marriage. Mick Kelly is a young girl who shoulders much responsibility for her younger brothers and strives to rise above her circumstances, aspiring to buy a piano and learn to write music. Doctor Copeland is an idealistic black man who strives to change the circumstances for members of his race, encouraging them to also rise above their current conditions, aim higher and strive for more. These four characters befriend Singer and seek him out in order to unburden themselves to him, despite the fact that he is unable to hear, although he is able to understand most of what they are saying because he can read lips. No one knows much about Singer, and no one really asks about his life, nor does he share his details with anyone except Antonapoulos, and at one point in the novel, the narrator says that these characters all assume things about Singer that make him into what they want him to be. We had a wonderful discussion. Two of the members had read this book many years ago and found that this rereading offered a new perspective on the novel, mainly dealing with the relationships between the characters. Written when the author was just 23 years old, we all agreed that this book showed a maturity and perception well beyond her years, and showed a bravery, too, as she dealt with many provocative issues such as race relations, poverty, impending war, and class structure. One of the book club members commented that these characters almost deify Singer, seeing him as a sage and possibly mistaking his silence for wisdom. She pointed out the that there is such a thing as therapeutic listening, a deep, empathetic listening that can help troubled individuals (I can't recall exactly what this type of therapy is called). We tried to determine if there was a “main character” in the novel, or if all of the major characters were equally significant, a point on which our opinions differed significantly. Several members felt as many literary critics do, that Singer is the main character around whom all the other characters revolve. I felt that all of the major characters were equally significant, mainly because we as readers learn more about them than about Singer, that we are privy to their thoughts and feelings, their ambitions and desires, whereas we learn so much less about Singer except his desire to maintain his connection with Antonapoulos, despite their separation and Antonapoulos’ seeming indifference to his friend. We talked about the major themes of love and loneliness and the inability to connect with others, particularly in the white community. We noted that the black characters in the novel, including Portia, Willie and Highboy, experienced more of a sense of community than their white counterparts, but that Doctor Copeland chose not to participate in that community. We discussed the overriding obsession with money, and thought that this was a “North American” obsession, that people living in European communities in the years leading up to WWII also experienced poverty and repression but that money (or lack of it) is less often the theme in European literature depicting experiences during that time in history. There were certainly sexual elements to the novel as well, although nothing explicit, everything veiled in language that was vague yet suggestive. Someone mentioned that McCullers was bisexual, which explained some of the relationships between characters. It was definitely a hit with the group and an excellent book club choice. I would give it a 9 out of 10, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys books that explore the human condition. It reminded me of a few books I’ve read recently: Plainsong by Kent Haruf, Empire Falls by Richard Russo, and especially The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck.
That’s all for today. Get outside and enjoy the sunshine!
Bye for now…
PS I follow the “Baileys Prize for Fiction” site and they recently sent out a list of the 20 Best Novels by Women as voted by Latitude Festival goers. This novel and the August selection for my other book group are both on the list! Please see link for the full list:
I’ve read a number of these titles, and may try to make time to read some of the others, too!