The Feast of Love

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Overview

From "one of our most gifted writers" (Chicago Tribune), here is a superb new novel that delicately unearths the myriad manifestations of extraordinary love between ordinary people.

The Feast of Love is just that — a sumptuous work of fiction about the thing that most distracts and delights us. In a re-imagined Midsummer Night's Dream, men and women speak of and desire their ideal mates; parents seek out their lost children; adult children try ...

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Overview

From "one of our most gifted writers" (Chicago Tribune), here is a superb new novel that delicately unearths the myriad manifestations of extraordinary love between ordinary people.

The Feast of Love is just that — a sumptuous work of fiction about the thing that most distracts and delights us. In a re-imagined Midsummer Night's Dream, men and women speak of and desire their ideal mates; parents seek out their lost children; adult children try to come to terms with their own parents and, in some cases, find new ones.

In vignettes both comic and sexy, the owner of a coffee shop recalls the day his first wife seemed to achieve a moment of simple perfection, while she remembers the women's softball game during which she was stricken by the beauty of the shortstop. A young couple spends hours at the coffee shop fueling the idea of their fierce love. A professor of philosophy, stopping by for a cup of coffee, makes a valiant attempt to explain what he knows to be the inexplicable workings of the human heart Their voices resonate with each other — disparate people joined by the meanderings of love — and come together in a tapestry that depicts the most irresistible arena of life. Crafted with subtlety, grace, and power, The Feast of Love is a masterful novel.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Shelf Life of Happiness

Charles Baxter's brilliant first novel, First Light, is the only book I've read in adulthood that made me actually weep. It's the story of a stolid, stay-at-home brother and his passionate, globe-trotting sister, told in backwards chronology: Each chapter begins at a point in time soon before the previous chapter ends (thus, surprisingly and inevitably, ending with the birth of the little sister). The book's epigraph, tellingly, is from Kierkegaard: "Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards."

Maybe it all sounds like one of those self-conscious gimmicks that British po-mo bad boys deploy in lieu of writing books with any real heart. (Four years after First Light, in fact, came Martin Amis's Time's Arrow, told in reverse chronology; to be charitable, it was not Amis's best book.) But heart is something Baxter has in abundance. Not only does he make the device work, he tells the story in a way that makes the structure seems utterly natural.

In real life, after all, falling in love does happen in reverse chronology. You learn the person's present, become enamored, and then, inexorably, come to learn about the past. That's First Light: You fall in love with the characters and then, now that you care, learn about their pasts.

And so it's with deep admiration for that novel, and for Baxter's short stories, that I now say this: His new novel, The Feast of Love, is his best work yet. It is to love in a midwestern town what The Things They Carried is to the burden of Vietnam.

Reviewers have often painted Baxter an earnest realist, perhaps because he is a midwesterner and writes about midwesterners (mostly Michiganders, which might be the most earnest proper noun in our language). What's special about Baxter's work, though, is how it's realistic on the surface, capturing the rhythms and longings of recognizable people—city managers, coffee shop owners, janitors, deaf children, aging teachers—but, right underneath, a mixture of classical storytelling devices and gentle but brainy postmodernism.

Take, for example, Baxter's most widely anthologized short story, "Gryphon" (collected in Through The Safety Net). It was inspired by Baxter's own experience teaching fourth grade in Michigan's bleak Saginaw Valley, which he did right out of college to get a deferment that kept him out of Vietnam. One day, Baxter found himself woefully unprepared for class and, on a whim, handled the lesson plan's edict to teach the students about ancient Egypt by making everything up. In the story, though, everything's told from the point of view of one of the kids, and the faux Egyptology is dispensed by an eccentric substitute teacher who also tells them that 6 times 11 is sometimes 68, that George Washington died because of a mistake about a diamond, and that she herself once traveled to Egypt and saw with her own eyes, in a cage, a half-bird, half-lion creature called a gryphon.

The story captures that (largely justified) feeling in childhood that everything you're learning in school is a big fat lie (most of what the sub tells them is strange but semifactual, like the one about "how Washington was not the first true president, but she didn't say who was"; technically, that would be Peyton Randolph, president of the first Continental Congress). Though the narrator's too young to intuit this, the story implies that the sub has just been dumped by some guy, which has left her distracted and without the time or sense of obligation necessary to prepare to teach a subject in which she is not trained.

But the story also has the zing of the fantastic (imagine Donald Barthelme in an unironic and superficially realistic mode) as well as the classical: not only because of the classical allusions but also because it is, after all, a stranger-comes-to-town story, one of two most basic tales. (As Eudora Welty once remarked, there are only two basic stories: Somebody leaves or a stranger comes to town. Everything is either one or the other or a combination thereof. Think about it: the Old Testament—somebody leaves. The New Testament—a stranger comes to town. Etc.)

When Baxter set out to write fiction, he was deeply influenced by his wide, wildly diverse reading in philosophy, criticism, and world literature (particularly Lars Gustafsson's Stories of Happy People and Robert Musil's 1,774-page The Man Without Qualities). His first three (unpublished) novels were in the Barth/Barthelme mode, and his earliest published stories came when he took those novels and boiled each down to its 15-page essence. His subsequent novels have quite consciously been composed not of one continuous narrative but rather story-sized units from different perspectives. Although in interviews Baxter has been self-deprecating about this, saying he's done it out of his own failures, he's very much taught himself to turn that failure into his advantage.

First Light, again realistic on its surface, shows in its structure Baxter's continued interest in the intellectual complexities of story, but The Feast of Love is the best synthesis of everything that's preoccupied Baxter as a writer, and everything he has heretofore done well.

The book is foursquare about happy love, even if the shelf life of that happiness is mournfully finite. On the surface, it's an engrossing, engaging collection of intersecting first-person monologues. The two main characters are Bradley Smith, twice-divorced owner of a coffee shop at the mall, and Chloé, one of his much-pierced teenaged employees, who is besotted with love for Oscar, another coffee shop clerk. In addition, Baxter creates amazingly convincing portraits of Bradley's ex-wives and of their lovers and of his next-door neighbor, a 60-something professor of Kierkegaardian philosophy at the University of Michigan.

All of this is drawn together by a character named Charlie Baxter, who both is and mostly isn't the writer, the same way that the Tim O'Brien in The Things They Carried both is but mostly isn't Tim O'Brien the actual person (who was, actually, the student government president at Macalester College the same time Baxter was the editor of the literary magazine).

It's a device for our times, a way of acknowledging and skewering the culture's appalling habit of reading fiction merely to decode it for autobiography. The Charlie Baxter of the novel is, like the author, a professor at the University of Michigan. He lives on the author's street and shares the author's problem with insomnia. Oscar and Chloé plan to kick off their honeymoon by going to see a band called the School of Velocity; the author's son plays in a band by the same name, and the author writes lyrics for the band's songs.

None of which helps the reader better understand the novel, or is of more than voyeuristic interest, but which allows Baxter to use a storytelling device that is at once ancient (think of how Chaucer shapes The Canterbury Tales) and postmodern (unreliable narrator, direct address of the reader, moving a story forward with the spaces and gaps withing the story), all to create a novel that is 100 percent Charles Baxter.

--Mark Winegardner

Mark Winegardner, a professor in the creative writing program at Florida State University, is the author of four books, including the novelThe Veracruz Blues.

From the Publisher
“Superb—a near-perfect book, as deep as it is broad in its humaneness, comedy and wisdom.”–The Washington Post Book World
Gabriella Stern
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.
Wall Street Journal
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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.
Jacqueline Carey
Extraordinary . . . Rich, juicy, laugh-out-loud funny and completely engrossing . . . What's amazing -- but never distracting -- is how distinctive Baxter makes the different voices of all these characters.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
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 Chloé and Oscar (two wonderfully realized characters) takes onanunexpected maturity and gravity. Just a shade too warm and fuzzy to be fully successful, but awfully entertaining nevertheless. And the Joycean monologue (spoken by Chloé) 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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375709104
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/1/2001
  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
  • Edition description: 1 VINTAGE
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 270,368
  • Product dimensions: 5.17 (w) x 7.99 (h) x 0.68 (d)

Meet the Author

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

Biography

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 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," 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.

Good To Know

In our exclusive interview, Baxter shared some fascinating insights with us:

"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."

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    1. Hometown:
      Minneapolis, Minnesota
    1. Date of Birth:
      May 13, 1947
    2. Place of Birth:
      Minneapolis, Minnesota
    1. Education:
      B. A., Macalester College, 1969; Ph.D., State University of New York at Buffalo, 1974
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

preludes

The man — me, this pale being, no one else, it seems — wakes in fright, tangled up in the sheets.

The darkened room, the half-closed doors of the closet and the slender pine-slatted lamp on the bedside table: I don't recognize them. On the opposite side of the room, the streetlight's distant luminance coating the window shade has an eerie unwelcome glow. None of these previously familiar objects have any familiarity now. What's worse, I cannot remember or recognize myself. I sit up in bed — actually, I lurch in mild sleepy terror toward the vertical. There's a demon here, one of the unnamed ones, the demon of erasure and forgetting. I can't manage my way through this feeling because my mind isn't working, and because it, the flesh in which I'm housed, hasn't yet become me.

Looking into the darkness, I have optical floaters: there, on the opposite wall, are gears turning separately and then moving closer to one another until their cogs start to mesh and rotate in unison.

Then I feel her hand on my back. She's accustomed by now to my night amnesias, and with what has become an almost automatic response, she reaches up sleepily from her side of the bed and touches me between the shoulder blades. In this manner the world's objects slip back into their fixed positions.

"Charlie," she says. Although I have not recognized myself, apparently I recognize her: her hand, her voice, even the slight saltine-cracker scent of her body as it rises out of sleep. I turn toward her and hold her in my arms, trying to get my heart rate under control. She puts her hand to my chest. "You've been dreaming," she says. "It's only a bad dream." Then she says, half-asleep again, "You have bad dreams," she yawns, "because you don't . . ." Before she can finish the sentence, she descends back into sleep.

I get up and walk to the study. I have been advised to take a set of steps as a remedy. I have "identity lapses," as the doctor is pleased to call them. I have not found this clinical phrase in any book. I think he made it up. Whatever they are called, these lapses lead to physical side effects: my heart is still thumping, and I can hardly sit or lie still.

I write my name, Charles Baxter, my address, the county, and the state in which I live. I concoct a word that doesn't exist in our language but still might have a meaning or should have one: glimmerless. I am glimmerless. I write down the word next to my name.

On the first floor near the foot of the stairs, we have placed on the wall an antique mirror so old that it can't reflect anything anymore. Its surface, worn down to nubbled grainy gray stubs, has lost one of its dimensions. Like me, it's glimmerless. You can't see into it now, just past it. Depth has been replaced by texture. This mirror gives back nothing and makes no productive claim upon anyone. The mirror has been so completely worn away that you have to learn to live with what it refuses to do. That's its beauty.

I have put on jeans, a shirt, shoes. I will take a walk. I glide past the nonmirroring mirror, unseen, thinking myself a vampire who soaks up essences other than blood. I go outside to Woodland Drive and saunter to the end of the block onto a large vacant lot. Here I am, a mere neighbor, somnambulating, harmless, no longer a menace to myself or to anyone else, and, stage by stage, feeling calmer now that I am outside.

As all the neighbors know, no house will ever be built on the ground where I am standing because of subsurface problems with water drainage. In the flatlands of Michigan the water stays put. The storm sewers have proven to be inadequate, with the result that this property, at the base of the hill on which our street was laid, always floods following thunderstorms and stays wet for weeks. The neighborhood kids love it. After rains they shriek their way to the puddles.

Above me in the clear night sky, the moon, Earth's mad companion, is belting out show tunes. A Rodgers and Hart medley, this is, including "Where or When." The moon has a good baritone voice. No: someone from down the block has an audio system on. Apparently I am still quite sleepy and disoriented. The moon, it seems, is not singing after all.

I turn away from the vacant lot and head east along its edge, taking the sidewalk that leads to the path into what is called Pioneer Woods. These woods border the houses on my street. I know the path by heart. I have taken walks on this path almost every day for the last twenty years. Our dog, Tasha, walks through here as mechanically as I do except when she sees a squirrel. In the moonlight the path that I am following has the appearance of the tunnel that Beauty walks through to get to the Beast, and though I cannot see what lies at the other end of the tunnel, I do not need to see it. I could walk it blind.

On the path now, urged leftward toward a stand of maples, I hear the sound of droplets falling through the leaves. It can't be raining. There are still stars visible intermittently overhead. No: here are the gypsy moths, still in their caterpillar form, chewing at the maple and serviceberry leaves, devouring our neighborhood forest leaf by leaf. Night gives them no rest. The woods have been infested with them, and during the day the sun shines through these trees as if spring were here, bare stunned nubs of gnawed and nibbled leaves casting almost no shade on the ground, where the altered soil chemistry, thanks to the caterpillars' leavings, has killed most of the seedlings, leaving only disagreeably enlarged thorny and deep-rooted thistles, horror-movie phantasm vegetation with deep root systems. The trees are coated, studded, with caterpillars, their bare trunks hairy and squirming. I can barely see them but can hear their every scrape and crawl.

The city has sprayed this forest with Bacillus thuringiensis, two words I love to say to myself, and the bacillus has killed some of these pests; their bodies lie on the path, where my seemingly adhesive shoes pick them up. I can feel them under my soles in the dark as I walk, squirming semiliquid life. Squish, squoosh. And in my night confusion it is as if I can hear the leaves being gnawed, the forest being eaten alive, shred by shred. I cannot bear it. They are not mild, these moths. Their appetites are blindingly voracious, obsessive. An acquaintance has told me that the Navahos refer to someone with an emotional illness as "moth crazy."

On the other side of the woods I come out onto the edge of a street, Stadium Boulevard, and walk down a slope toward the corner, where a stoplight is blinking red in two directions. I turn east and head toward the University of Michigan football stadium, the largest college football stadium in the country. The greater part of it was excavated below ground; only a small part of its steel and concrete structure is visible from here, the corner of Stadium and Main, just east of Pioneer High School. Cars pass occasionally on the street, their drivers hunched over, occasionally glancing at me in a fearful or predatory manner. Two teenagers out here are skateboarding in the dark, clattering over the pavement, doing their risky and amazing ankle-busting curb jumping. They grunt and holler. Both white, they have fashioned Rasta-wear for themselves, dreads and oversized unbuttoned vests over bare skin. I check my watch. It is 1:30. I stop to make sure that no patrol cars are passing and then make my way through the turnstiles. The university has planned to build an enormous iron fence around this place, but it's not here yet. I am trespassing now and subject to arrest. After entering the tunneled walkway of Gate 19, I find myself at the south end zone, in the kingdom of football.

Inside the stadium, I feel the hushed moonlight on my back and sit down on a metal bench. The August meteor shower now seems to be part of this show. I am two thirds of the way up. These seats are too high for visibility and too coldly metallic for comfort, but the place is so massive that it makes most individual judgments irrelevant. Like any coliseum, it defeats privacy and solitude through sheer size. Carved out of the earth, sized for hordes and giants, bloody injuries and shouting, and so massive that no glance can take it all in, the stadium can be considered the staging ground for epic events, and not just football: in 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson announced his Great Society program here.

On every home-game Saturday in the fall, blimps and biplanes pulling advertising banners putter in semicircles overhead. Starting about three hours before kickoff, our street begins to be clogged with parked cars and RVs driven by midwesterners in various states of happy pre-inebriation, and when I rake the leaves in my back yard I hear the tidal clamor of the crowd in the distance, half a mile away. The crowd at the game is loudly traditional and antiphonal: one side of the stadium roars GO and the other side roars BLUE. The sounds rise to the sky, also blue, but nonpartisan.

The moonlight reflects off the rows of stands. I look down at the field, now, at 1:45 in the morning. A midsummer night's dream is being enacted down there.
This old moon wanes! She lingers my desires and those of a solitary naked couple, barely visible down there right now on the fifty-yard line, making love, on this midsummer night.

They are making soft distant audibles.

Back out on the sidewalk, I turn west and walk toward Allmendinger Park. I see the park's basketball hoops and tennis courts and monkey bars illuminated dimly by the streetlight. Near the merry-go-round, the city planners have bolted several benches into the ground for sedentary parents watching their children. I used to watch my son from that very spot. As I stroll by on the sidewalk, I think I see someone, some shadowy figure in a jacket, emerging as if out of a fog or mist, sitting on a bench accompanied by a dog, but certainly not watching any children, this man, not at this time of night, and as I draw closer, he looks up, and so does the dog, a somewhat nondescript collie-Labrador-shepherd mix. I know this dog. I also know the man sitting next to him. I have known him for years. His arms are flung out on both sides of the bench, and his legs are crossed, and in addition to the jacket (a dark blue Chicago Bulls windbreaker), he's wearing a baseball hat, as if he were not quite adult, as if he had not quite given up the dreams of youth and athletic grace and skill. His name is Bradley W. Smith.

His chinos are one size too large for him — they bag around his hips and his knees — and he's wearing a shirt with a curious design that I cannot quite make out, an interlocking M. C. Escher giraffe pattern, giraffes linked to giraffes, but it can't be that, it can't be what I think it is. In the dark my friend looks like an exceptionally handsome toad. The dog snaps at a moth, then puts his head on his owner's leg. I might be hallucinating the giraffes on the man's shirt, or I might simply be mistaken. He glances at me in the dark as I sit down next to him on the bench.

"Hey," he says, "Charlie. What the hell are you doing out here? What's up?"

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Reading Group Guide

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"?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 36 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 36 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 31, 2000

    Everyone has a story...

    ..and it's not necessarily what really happened, at least according to the other participants. The characters are finely draw, honest and interesting even when distasteful and unappealling in their habits. The part about the psychic in Ypsilanti is too funny - you want to read it out loud to a friend. The last chapter I have read several times. Life is sad, funny, passionate and full of missteps- but our time here is short - we should appreciate it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2000

    Stunning Acomplishment

    Never has a book kept me up all night. Feast of Love is a rare look at the passion behind what really makes a relationship work. The way you are able to relate to there struggles and emotion is nothing short of outstanding. Highly charged. A must for any avid reader.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 16, 2012

    Only one of the most brilliant books I have ever read. Ever. Rea

    Only one of the most brilliant books I have ever read. Ever. Read. I have read a LOT of books. Like Pet Sematary, I was disappointed in watching the movie (for different reasons), though the movie was probably in all actuality quite good. Reading the book several years beforehand in effect spoiled any motion picture concept to come. It is raw emotion. Pure, raw, intense energy, even in the slowest-paced parts of this work. If Bret Easton Elis (who I like) was an even better writer, and left behind the morose for the *real* morbidity of the human emotional condition, this would be the product. Absolutely incredible.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 26, 2011

    Fave!!

    By far my favorite read. Purely beautiful story.

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  • Posted May 3, 2011

    Easy read!

    Couldnt put this book down

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  • Posted February 16, 2009

    Great story!

    Charles Baxter compiles characters that are real and a story that flows.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2008

    Enchanting

    This is the first Charles Baxter novel I have ever read and I simply loved it. The characters are living, breathing people that, like us all are living, loving and are interconnected in a way that is entertaining as well as poignant. I highly recommend.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 15, 2008

    I love this book!

    I am currently deployed and my best friend sends me random books to read. At first when I got it in the mail I was half tempted to throw the book to the side and just watch the movie. I am glad I didn't. Once I started reading the book, I couldn¿t put it down. When I was finished with it, I watched the movie and I am just going to say, the movie does NOT compare to the book. Chloe and Oscar are amazing in the book you feel like you know them and want the love that they share together. In the movie their meeting and other life changing events weren¿t so emotional because of that! I highly recommend the book. I did not think the movie was worth watching once I read it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 21, 2006

    Can't get enough!

    It was my first Baxter book and completely adored it! The Feast of Love tops my favorite book list. Though it took a while for me to get into it, I became addicted. The book is a thinker and makes you say 'oooh.' I loved his style, the humor and the sadness. I bought my second Baxter book, Saul and Patsy.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 26, 2006

    Interesting and enjoyable

    I listened to this book and audio and found it to be very enjoyable. The readers did an excellent job with the story and the story had some great insights into love and relationships

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 9, 2003

    Poignant

    This book is one of the best books I have read! Very Poignant and deep. This book makes you want to highlight parts of it because it is indeed very poetic and very moving to say the least. Just like a puzzle each piece is relevant and the whole picture comes together at the end. Not a love story, but a story about love, change and hope.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 13, 2003

    Every relationship should have stories as memorable as those in this wonderful novel.

    Charles Baxter develops his characters into full & complex individuals by letting them tell their own stories. Reliable or unreliable, these narrators spin their tales like a Greek chorus, giving us fragments at a time that spin ultimately into a beautiful whole. Highly recommended.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 24, 2002

    Lovely

    I randomly picked out this book at the JFK airport about two years ago before a long flight. And I still remember every page in that book. Baxter has a great writing style and it's easy to read. I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it to others.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 27, 2002

    A great find!

    This book was a wonderful book to come across. I found it just when I was getting frustrated with all the bad books that I have read lately. This work stood out for its originality when so many books are beginning to seem the same. I look forward to reading more of his work.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 2, 2002

    Good, but not great

    Since every review of this book has gotten a five (and only a handful of books should actually get a five, especially when combined with multiple reviews) I feel compelled to write a little blurb here which avoids the 'just read it and I love it!' mentality that so often enraptures us in the post-finish weeks. I will admit, The Feast of Love kept my interest, even though I am not partial to love or romance books. Mostly a fan of satire/war/dark novels, I found myself enjoying this book more than I had anticipated (it was recommended by a former girlfriend). But, where the story fails is in its ability to move along the story without falling into cliched sentiment. Some of the little stories of 'love' work well, while others seem like so many stories recycled again and again, with no real face or heart. The strongest character in the book is Chloe, a young teenager on the verge of a new love with a fitting boy. Although sometimes stereotyped way too much (type of dress, hair color, etc.) Chloe is able to develop a unique voice that doesn't seem like cheap sentiment or false sorrow. She seems to have been a side character that Baxter simply couldn't ignore, and she really ran with the book. Bradley, the main character through most of story, is also unique, but melancholy and sappy in ways that make him seem less interesting than others. His trials with love are often entertaining, but he reaches for it with such desperation that we lose touch with him. The older couple in the novel are also a bit glum and if you haven't lost a child to drugs or hatred, it is very difficult to connect with them. They seem more like story-movers than actual people, and their lives seem better left from the story. Other than these things, and the fact that every character referring to Bradley as 'toad' is simply annoying, the book seems to achieve its purpose. One of the best parts of the story is when Bradley goes to retrieve his dog (also named Bradley) from his sister and brother-in-law, who have sort of taken him hostage. Bradley gives his little nephew money in exchange for his silence, which causes the scene to appear as bribery. The book's best message comes near the end, when the Bradley character is beginning a new love. He has a short chapter in which he gives no stories, because he states that when we are in love, we have no stories to tell. All stories are of heartbreak and woe, and in the good times, we must sit back and enjoy, living fully for the moment. Amen.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 7, 2002

    Stunning

    I wandered into my local bookshop, read the back of this book, and took it home without any real expectations. One week later, I had finished the book and was heart-broken and awe-struck. It's marvelous. Beautifully written and masterfully constructed, it left a lasting impression on me. I can't recommend it enough.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 12, 2002

    my favorite

    i looooooooooved this book. it was so fantastic in describing the lives of everyone around this man, bradley, in a way that left me speechless, knowing i will never forget them.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 29, 2001

    The promise of a feast was well fulfilled

    Charles Baxter has created a wonderful tale in which he seemlessly weaves the lives of almost a dozen people together to make one intricate journey into the dimensions and facets of love.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 28, 2001

    Stunningly Heartbreaking and Beautiful

    When you have to stop reading to think to yourself 'God himself could not have written and more eloquent sentence than that one...' at countless points during the consumption of a novel, you know without a doubt that you are in the presence of greatness. Brutally truthful in style and substance, I can not express, within the confines of the english language, the depth of admiration I feel for both this book and it's author. I beg you to read it... no, DEVOUR it - you owe it to yourself!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 7, 2001

    Phenominal

    This book nearly tore my heart out by the end, but in the best way.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 36 Customer Reviews

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