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A Novel

Written by Charles BaxterAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Charles Baxter

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On Sale: May 14, 2009
Pages: 320 | ISBN: 978-0-307-56569-3
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

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.

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?"
Charles Baxter|Author Q&A

About Charles Baxter

Charles Baxter - The Feast of Love

Photo © Keri Pickett

Charles Baxter is the author of the novels The Feast of Love (nominated for the National Book Award), The Soul Thief, Saul and Patsy, Shadow Play, and First Light, and the story collections Gryphon, Believers, A Relative Stranger, Through the Safety Net, and Harmony of the World.  The stories “Bravery” and “Charity,” which appear in There’s Something I Want You to Do, were included in Best American Short Stories. Baxter lives in Minneapolis and teaches at the University of Minnesota and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

Author Q&A

Q: The Feast of Love is written from the first-person perspective of a character named "Charlie Baxter." First, is this character you? And second, how did you come up with this idea?

A: The essence of that character—the insomnia, the waking-up without knowing where he is or who he is, the fact that he's a writer—that's all me. "Charlie Baxter" lives on my street in Ann Arbor, where he walks the same paths I walk on, he has the same dog, he even sounds like me when he opens his mouth and talks. But at the bottom of the stairs in his house is a mirror that I don't own, an imaginary mirror, and everyone he meets or talks to is imaginary. "Charlie Baxter" suffers, he tells us, from "identity lapses," as every novelist does.

I came up with this idea out of sheer desperation. I was stuck on a new project, which I wanted to be a love story of some sort, and I didn't know how to go about it, or even how to start it. So I began by using my own insomnia, and a nighttime walk I took once down to the vacant lot at the corner of our street. I heard voices coming from someone's house, and I thought of that line from Shakespeare, "the night air is full of voices,"and I thought: I'll write a novel with voices, a sort of Midsummer Night's Dream in which people are paired off with the wrong partners at first, and then are paired off with the right partners later, and everyone will tell their stories to Charlie, who will be this shadowy listener, like the reader. Like a friend, a therapist, or a detective.

Q: Did you witness anything else in the novel directly?

A: Well, my son and my wife and I were once bicycling on a weekend, and we bicycled into the Michigan football stadium in the afternoon, and we saw a couple, partially clothed, down on the fifty yard line, making love in broad daylight.

Q: How did your son react?

A: He asked what they were doing down there. He was about ten years old. I told him they were kissing.

Q: Edmund Morris recently got a lot of flack for creating a fictional character bearing his name in his Reagan biography—are you worried you might get a similar response for using this unique technique?

A: Not really. For one thing, I wasn't writing an official history of a person or time, except an imaginary history, which is what fiction does. My book advertises itself as a novel, right on the title page, and there's one of those disclaimers about all the characters being fictitious, and any coincidence between them and real people living or dead being coincidental, etc. Besides, I'm not in the novel all that much. I slip into the identities of the characters, the way a novelist is supposed to, and if you really wanted to find out about me from this book, you wouldn't find out very much.

Q: Why not?

A: Because I like to think that I'm pretty ordinary as a human being. I've been married for twenty-five years, and I drive a four-door sedan around town, and try to pay the bills on time. My characters are much, much more interesting than I am.

Q: How so?

A: They're funnier, sexier, more desperate, more beautiful, much more violent and abusive, more talkative, more opinionated, even more eloquent than I am--much more suited to a love story than I am. They're on the prowl for love, all of them, their voices raised.

Q: Why do you think up characters like this? What's the eternal appeal of love stories?

A:
Love stories combine, like most good stories, excitement and interest. A good love story starts with an air of excitement (stage one) that moves into interest and complication (stage two), once you get to know the person. The act of love at its various levels becomes an act of knowing someone. Love stories that try to stay at the level of pure excitement turn into a form of pornography. As for the characters, the person could be a clerk in a coffee shop or a litigation lawyer or a professor of philosophy or a meter maid. Everybody's love life is interesting, no exceptions to that rule. The trick is in avoiding sentimentality.

Q: There's a lot of sex in your book, although it's not particularly explicit, except here and there…

A: I tried to make it bawdy--that is, laced with humor--rather than romantic, you know, with the violins and the soft focus and the exclamation points and the bittersweet weeping. Chloé loves love, for example, but she has a good sense of humor. So does Bradley, for that matter. Diana doesn't, but she's a lawyer after all. There's a wide range of character in this book, a spectrum.

Q: Charlie, you're probably best known as a short story writer. Do you have a preference between writing novels and stories?

A: I love them both, but my stories look like regular stories; however, my novels don't seem to look like anyone else's.

Q: Why not?

A: My novels are like long trips that you take on a commuter airline. There are a great many landings and take-offs, a few stops in-between.

Q: You mean that there are a lot of stories within the novel?

A: Yeah. Some of the chapters started as short stories. Bradley's trip to the Jackson Cascades began that way. (The place really exists, incidentally. They were playing Mantovani the evening I went there, and they were selling miniature fly swatters.)

Q: Why do you have so many individual stories inside the novel?

A: Because I like novels that stop to tell individual stories, novels that slow down, novels that can pause long enough in the middle to give you, for example, a cure for dandruff or a recipe for beef burgundy. I don't like to be rushed. I once tried to write conventional novels and failed miserably. As a result, my novels are mosaic-novels. I write them the only way I can. I ended up imagining this one as a collection of wheels, or gears, turning separately, and then coming together, so that they all meshed at the end. Like a watch, that tells time.

Q: Is there an over-arching theme to The Feast of Love?

A: Yes. Love invites comedy and happiness through one door, and violence through the other door. You have to be careful which door you open. People who are successfully in love are often comic, and people who are desperate for love are often crazy and dangerous, both to themselves and to others. There is no madness like the madness of love. Also, it is not true that love always makes you happy. It gives your life a size and scale, but it does not always make you happy. Sometimes it makes you profoundly and truly miserable. You wouldn't always guess that if you just watched TV and the movies.

Q: Your stories have been compared to those of a short story master, Raymond Carver--can you respond to this?

A: I'm flattered, but we're very different. Or, rather, this: his characters are more often desperate than mine. The weight on their souls seem to be greater. Alcoholism plays a greater role in his stories. I was the reader for the audio version of "Where I'm Calling From" for The Best American Short Stories of the Century, and I had to put more weight on, in my voice, for the story to sound right. I had to sound more weighed down than I usually do. Lots of pauses between sentences.

Q: The character Chloé (or as she says it, Chlo-ay) is such a strong, independent, and unique young woman. Reading her thoughts in The Feast of Love is like talking to a real person. What was the impetus for her character?

A: I wish I knew. You can't just will characters into existence. One day I sat down at the word-processor and her voice came to me, fully forward, fully formed, and I started laughing, and I began to write it down. Every time I sat down to do a Chloé chapter, I could hear her as clear as day. Of course, I've had students who talked a bit like her--we all know people a little like Chloé--but what knocked me over was the force of her character once she got started. I'd be driving my car, and I'd hear something she might say. "That boy befriended me. I suppose I made a man out of him, but that doesn't seem like much of an accomplishment." I was just outside Windsor, Ontario, near the customs booth, when she said that.

She wasn't that much more real to me than any of the other characters, but Chloé has the advantage of being young, sexy, and slangier, more open and colloquial. She'll tell you anything, absolutely anything about herself She has no shame. She's shameless. She's proud of her shamelessness. I love shameless people. That's useful in a character.

Q: Who was the hardest character to get on the page?

A: Diana. She's smart and she's mean, and most of the time, she doesn't exaggerate. She's a somewhat unsympathetic character, but I wanted readers to be interested in her, even a little sympathetic to her, despite all her sharp edges.

Q: Is she a part of you?

A: Anybody is a part of anybody, if you listen, if you invite them into your psyche.

Q: The Feast of Love has been described as A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in Ann Arbor. Can you elaborate?

A:
The comparison is not exact, because the plots are different. There's no Puck, no amateur theatricals in Feast. But my novel is about midsummer moonstruck love-madness in its various forms, and it's an oral history, this story: everybody is talking all of the time, talking their heads off, just like a play happening in front of you, maybe in your own home town. I like the sound of people talking. Sadness and happiness are mixed in the novel in about equal measure. Besides, A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of those plays that can happen almost anywhere, at least metaphorically. You can't say that about Julius Caesar or MacBeth, but you can say that about several of Shakespeare's romantic comedies.

Q: Finally, The Feast of Love deals with love on so many levels; it is the search for what everyone ultimately wants. It captures so many moments-do you imagine these moments, create them yourself, so to speak, or are they based on real experiences or stories you've heard?

A: Vivian Gornick recently published a book called The End of the Novel of Love. Her claim, so far as I understand it, is that we do not go to love stories in fiction for the source of meaning anymore, as say, Jane Austen's readers did, or even as Scott Fitzgerald's readers did, and that perhaps we do not try to make love itself a source of meaning in our lives at all much anymore. She says that's all over. Perhaps she's right, but I think the claim is too large, and because it's too large, it's wrong. The truth is that I don't think people change that much from generation to generation. Hairstyles change, clothes change, manners change, but people go on looking for love, no matter what. As long as there are stories, there are stories about love, just as there will always be gossip. If love doesn't provide meaning to your life, what will? Money? Faith? It's like that game, "Careers." You get to choose among money, fame, or love. I'd take love. (Okay, I wouldn't refuse the money or the fame, if you offered it.)

A woman came up to me at a party in December, having heard about my book. She wanted to talk about love, and in the course of our conversation, she said, "My whole life has been about loving one man. That's what I wanted, and that's what I eventually got." What was interesting was that "eventually." For some people, love matters a great deal; it's at the center of their lives. For others, it doesn't matter so much. It may even look frivolous, just an emotion on the way to other, more important emotions. It's always mattered a great deal to me--I wouldn't have written this book otherwise.

I had to imagine my way through this book. None of these events occurred to me in actuality; they just occurred to me, imaginatively, day after day and night after night. As a writer, I'm restless, as writers must be--I'm plagued with sleeplessness, and it's as if these characters are within me, clamoring for expression. The odd thing is how these stories come out of nowhere. They come out of nowhere, and then they start to seem more real to you than your own actual life.

Praise

Praise

“Superb—a near-perfect book, as deep as it is broad in its humaneness, comedy and wisdom.”–The Washington Post Book World
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Charles Baxter's The Feast of Love. While this extraordinary novel takes on literature's great themes--love, death, and life's bewildering mixture of pain and happiness--it does so in a disarmingly simple way. As every character tells his or her own story, Baxter weaves each sharply distinctive voice into a chorus that is unforgettable in its comedy, wit, and profundity, as well as in the sheer reading pleasure that it offers.

About the Guide

Charlie Baxter, frustrated with his stalled book-in-progress, goes out for a midnight stroll and runs into a friend named Bradley Smith. Bradley tells Charlie to call his book The Feast of Love. He says, "You should put me in your novel. I'm an expert on love. I've just broken up with my second wife, after all. I'm in an emotional tangle. Maybe I'd shoot myself before the final chapter" [p. 12]. Bradley has an idea for Charlie: he'll send people he knows to talk to Charlie, and Charlie can use their stories in his book.

We hear from Bradley's first wife, Kathryn, who never understood what Bradley was about, and shortly after their marriage left him for a woman named Jenny. Then there's Bradley's second wife, Diana--who marries him even though she is passionately involved with David, a married man with two children. There's Chlo?, who works in Bradley's coffee shop, Jitters, and is wildly in love with Oscar, a young recovered drug addict. And there's Bradley's next-door neighbor Harry Ginsberg, a grief-stricken professor of philosophy whose youngest son is violently insane. Eventually all of these voices and stories converge to create a truly absorbing fictional world that transports the reader into the streets of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and into the lives of these characters.

When asked about how he came up with the idea for The Feast of Love, Charles Baxter replied, "I began by using my own insomnia, and a nighttime walk I took once down to the vacant lot at the corner of our street. I heard voices coming from someone's house, and I thought of that line from Shakespeare, 'The night air is full of voices,' and I thought: I'll write a novel with voices, a sort of Midsummer Night's Dream in which people are paired off with the wrong partners at first and then are paired off with the right partners later, and everyone will tell their stories to Charlie, who will be this shadowy listener, like the reader."* The Feast of Love, like A Midsummer Night's Dream, is a delightful immersion in the visions and dreams of a group of love-struck characters, a journey in which some of those dreams come true.

About the Author

Charles Baxter lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and teaches at the University of Michigan. He is the author of six previous works of fiction, including Believers, Harmony of the World, and Through the Safety Net.

Discussion Guides

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"?

Charles Baxter

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  • The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter
  • May 01, 2001
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $15.95
  • 9780375709104

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