Less by Andrew Sean Greer: A review

This book won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and is a Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction Nominee and an Andrew Carnegie Medal Nominee for Fiction. Is there an award for best comic novel? If so, this book should be a contender for that, too, because it is hilarious. I'm talking laugh-out-loud, coffee through the nose, tears rolling down the cheek funny. I don't know when I have enjoyed reading a book quite this much.

It took me totally by surprise because I was not familiar with the writing of Andrew Sean Greer, although this is his fifth novel and he is apparently greatly admired in literary circles and by some of the best writers of the day. I definitely want to become better acquainted with him in the future.

Less is Arthur Less, a writer who has so far had a mediocre career. His first book was a moderate success, but he has struggled to follow that up with anything of comparable or greater success. 

But it is not just his writing career that isn't going well. Life, in general, is a challenge for Less. He is a homosexual man about to reach his 50th birthday, "too old to be fresh and too young to be rediscovered, one who never sits next to anyone on a plane who has heard of his books." He is further described as "the first homosexual ever to grow old. That is, at least, how he feels at times like these."

He has reached this low point because of a crisis in his personal life. His lover of the last nine years, whom Less refused to commit to, is about to marry another man. Prior to that relationship, Less was for many years the lover of an older man, an acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who had encouraged him to write.

Less receives an invitation to his former lover's wedding and he cannot face it. In order to have an excuse for declining, he dredges up all the invitations he has received to participate in literary festivals, award ceremonies, and various other literary events around the world. He accepts all of those invitations and embarks on an around the world trip that will take him to New York (he lives in San Francisco), Mexico City, Turin, Paris, Berlin, Morocco, India, and Kyoto.

But before he leaves on the trip, there is one further humiliation. His current writing project is a novel called Swift, but his publisher hates it and declines to publish it. 

And so off he goes, his life at low ebb, wearing his treasured blue suit that was hand-tailored for him years ago in "humid moped-plagued" Ho Chi Minh City.

Arthur's wanderings take him from one disaster to another. They are harrowing but outrageously funny and they are lovingly described with sentences of such lyrical beauty as to make one want to read them over and over again. The chief delight of this book is simply experiencing its language, but a close second is getting to know and love the character of Arthur Less. 

For he is entirely lovable. He exudes a warm humanity and he is excellent company on our shared travels because, in spite of all the unpleasantries he experiences, he never wallows in self-pity. (Except perhaps when he contemplates that 50th birthday. That does seem to be a bridge too far even for his imperturbable nature.) Arthur Less connects with people, especially young people. That is his great gift.

As Arthur is winding up his world tour in Kyoto, he receives news of a crisis which impels him to phone his former lover and mentor, the prize-winning poet, who advises him that turning 50 isn't all bad: "It means now people will think your were always a grown-up. They'll take you seriously."

And so, having weathered the dreaded birthday and the wedding of his former lover, Arthur heads home where he will be surprised by love and where we will finally learn the identity of the mysterious narrator of this story. A delicious ending which leaves us happy to know that this character that we've come to care about is in good hands.  

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


  1. You are the first of people whose reviews I follow to have liked the book. You make it sound completely wonderful. Now I have to rethink everything.

    1. It may be a book that you either love or hate. I've noticed that several of the people that I follow on Goodreads have hated it. But I think it is marvelous. The language alone, even if you don't like the story, is worth the read. You are generally an adventurous reader so I think you might actually quite like it.

  2. I have seen this book a lot lately, and wondered. I didn't care enough to investigate it further, but I confess you had me at "I'm talking laugh-out-loud, coffee through the nose, tears rolling down the cheek funny."

    I'll see if I can squeeze it in this year's already "super-packed", small list of titles that I will be reading in the remaining months of the year.

    1. If you do decide to read it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


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