a single man review

A Single Man Book Review: Masterpiece by Christopher Isherwood

📖 GenreClassic, Fiction, Literary Fiction
📃 Number of Pages186 pages
🪴 Average Goodreads Rating4.07 ⭐
🌻 My Rating5 ⭐

What is A Single Man About?

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood is a short novel showing a day in the life of George, a gay university professor whose partner has recently died. The story itself is set in the 1960s in Southern California. As we follow him through his routine (which he is determined to keep), we see all the masks he puts on for the world — but we also see how much he loves to live, despite his sadness. 

I originally picked up A Single Man on a whim. It was there, it was short, and I’ve been meaning to read it for a while. I expected not to finish it since I’ve been in the worst reading slump these past few months, but this book grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. 

If you’ve spent any time on my blog, you’ll know I’m not a huge fan of classics. Which is why the fact that this is the book to pull me out of my slump is confusing. I didn’t think I’d like it. Just a few days before reading it, I found myself bored with Bonjour Tristesse by Francois Sagan.

Yet there’s something extremely compelling about A Single Man, Isherwood’s writing, George himself as a character. I felt as if I could keep reading about his life for much longer. Fair warning, I’m taking you through the whole plot of the novel, though the plot is not really the point. 

Plot & Characters

Do you think it makes people nasty to be loved? You know it doesn’t! Then why should it make them nice to be loathed? While you’re being persecuted, you hate what’s happening to you, you hate the people who are making it happen; you’re in a world of hate. Why, you wouldn’t recognize love if you met it! You’d suspect love! You’d think there was something behind it—some motive—some trick.

We enter George’s life one early morning, while he’s still sleeping. The narrator refers to the body that belongs to George as it and we watch it wake up. I found this to be a masterful introduction to the novel because isn’t it true? Aren’t we all just a sack of it until our brain orders the body UP, wash, dress? Aren’t we all creatures of habit, of routines in that way?

And in that brief scene, in that space between dreams and reality, we see our first glimpses of George as a person — broken, sad, afraid of aging, of being rushed as he puts it. 

The creature we are watching will struggle on and on until it drops. Not because it is heroic. It can imagine no alternative. 

It’s only when George’s is washed up and dressed that he becomes George in earnest, yet not quite. And as he walks through his routine of making breakfast and moving through his home, we come to understand his situation a little better. 

He lives alone, in a big house, and someone is missing. The staircase is narrow, too narrow for two people but it is used to two people. The doorway is wide enough for one person, but it is used to two people, bumping into each other. 

Think of two people, living together day after day, year after year, in this small space, standing elbow to elbow cooking at the same small stove, squeezing past each other on the narrow stairs, shaving in front of the same small bathroom mirror, constantly jogging, jostling, bumping against each other’s bodies by mistake or on purpose, sensually, aggressively, awkwardly, impatiently, in rage or in love – think what deep though invisible tracks they must leave, everywhere, behind them!

We see George interact with a few people after this. His friend, Charlotte, for one, whom he is trying to avoid and seems generally annoyed by. The neighborhood kids who treat him as a monster in a creepy house, though they’re not scared of him. But George admits that his behavior is real, his screaming at them — it’s not play-acting. 

We also meet neighbors, who are keeping their distance, yet are judgemental towards George. And George is judgemental of them and their lives. But, later on in the novel, when they invite him for drinks, he’s delighted by the prospect. To me, at least, this sort of affirms the idea that he only wants to be accepted, loved. 

There’s a really magnificent sequence when George drives to his university and plots the demise of all the people (well, groups) that he hates, that have brought upon Jim’s death (however inadvertently) or are in some way destroying his world. 

Then, at the university, we see him at his job — which he’s good at, and loves. But we also see how much he wants these people to like him, to respect him. We also meet some of his students — Kenny, for instance, who will become important later — and his coworkers. 

I loved his rants in this section — all his masks completely slip, and he just says what he really means, no pretenses. 

After, he meets Doris, a woman who once tried to take Jim from him, and who is also on her deathbed. 

Ah, but when the road narrows to the width of this bed, when there is nothing in front of you that is known, dare you disdain any guide? 

He visits this woman, despite their history, because she has the last pieces of Jim, she’s a reminder of him. 

We see him happy at the gym, then his happiness is soured after he goes into the hills and they’re not what he expected. 

After, he plans on having dinner alone. 

He pictures the evening he might have spent, snugly at home, fixing the food he has bought, then lying down on the couch beside the bookcase and reading himself slowly sleepy. At first glance, this is an absolutely convincing and charming scene of domestic contentment. Only after a few instants does George notice the omission which makes it meaningless. What is left out of the picture is Jim, lying opposite him at the other end of the couch, also reading; the two of them absorbed in their books yet so completely aware of each other’s presence. 

So, he goes to his friend Charlotte’s, who has her own set of heartbreaks. And they talk, they drink, they get gloriously drunk, but George is happy, he’s happy with Charley. She’s also an expat from England, also alone, so he belongs there, with her. When she suggests she might leave, go back home because there’s nothing left for her in America, he thinks that she should stay for him, that he doesn’t want her to leave. 

Once he leaves Charley, he goes to a bar where he first met Jim and there sees Kenny whom he gets even more drunk with. They talk of past, of future, of wisdom that comes with age (and does it really exist?). 

After, they end up swimming naked in the ocean, and George takes Kenny to his home. He offers Kenny his home so he can have sex with his girlfriend there, and Kenny leaves once George passes out. 

The ending, at least to me, is brutal, and unexpected, especially after spending all that time with George who wanted to live, to find love again, to be a part of his friends’ lives. 

Overall Thoughts

This book is a magnificent one. It’s very short, only 186 pages, which feel much longer — not because the story is boring, but because Isherwood managed to tell us so much in that short format. The prose is economical, yet poetic at times. I highly recommend reading A Single Man — you won’t regret it. 

Be warned, though, that some of the language is very outdated. The terms that the author uses to describe different races is definitely of that time. The author, however, is never unkind and George himself feels that he is connected to these people by nature of their marginalization.

And there’s a movie? With Colin Firth as George and Julianne Moore as Charley? How did I not know this before? 

Well, I have some movie-watching to attend to.

Similarities Between A Single Man and Less by Andrew Sean Greer

While I was reading, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to another novel, Less by Andrew Sean Greer. It won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018, and is a wonderful read itself.

I couldn’t find any references that Greer was influenced by Isherwood’s novel, and they’re not quite that similar. Both are about middle-aged gay men who lost the love of their lives and now are struggling with ageing, loneliness, fitting in.

But where A Single Man is generally quiet and sad, and has a sad ending, Less is funny (and yes, very sad at times), and has a happy ending.

So, if you just finished A Single Man and need a pick-me-up and perhaps a different ending, pick up Less. It’s similarly short, quite a bit lighter in mood, but entirely lovable and charming.

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