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The Boston Phoenix Love Stories

Charles Baxter meditates on a familiar topic

By Paul Kafka

JUNE 5, 2000: 

The Feast Of Love by Charles Baxter. Pantheon, 308 pages, $24.

In his new novel, Charles Baxter explores familiar questions: what is love, and why is it so important? Like a medieval storyteller, a Boccaccio or a Chaucer, Baxter presents a large but integrated circle of lovers, young and old, lucky and lonely, over- and under-sexed. His novel also mimics classic structures: as on a journey, the narrator records stories told by those he encounters. He meets his characters in their houses, at the mall, and on the streets of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Like a monk drawing a self-portrait into the margins of an illuminated manuscript, he toys with self-reference. The narrator is a middle-aged writer named Charlie, but he soon steps aside to let each character reveal a distinctive voice.

At the center of Feast stand two figures: the middle-aged, twice-divorced Bradley, an artist who owns a café in the local mall; and Chloé, Bradley's 23-year-old employee, who falls in love with her fellow coffee pourer, Oscar. Chloé is Venus-with-an-attitude. Here she is on a break with Oscar:

We went outside to the parking lot for a smoke. He was still wearing the [restaurant] hat. To make conversation, he pointed at my ear and said, "Your name's Chloé? That's cool. Well, hey, Chloé, you're pretty but you're way underpierced."

So I kicked the dead caterpillars in the driveway and said, Fuck you but, you know, giving it a friendly girlish inflection, a smile, an invitation, just the right tone to start flipping him out.

Bradley is that beleaguered creature, the white middle-class male, who can't seem to win for losing. His reveries, in contrast to Chloé's, are staid, but he has his own charm, as in his description of the forests of Michigan's Upper Peninsula:

. . . dense forests filled with trees -- I do not exaggerate -- of a kind you never saw before, probably hybrid trees resulting from the mating, it could be, of white pines and willow trees, grafted together out of sheer loneliness. I mean, these are odd-looking trees, barbaric and sad, and there are entire forests of them growing unobserved and unlabeled up there.

Embarked upon the universal search for love, Bradley and Chloé are taking twisting paths. Bradley visits the creepy Upper Peninsula on a honeymoon with hard-edged, high-powered Diana, who gives him lots of sex but is in love with another man. Chloé has not yet found her soul mate, despite lots of partying. Oscar changes all that.

Then there's Bradley's first wife, Kathryn, who discovers, right after her marriage to the hapless Bradley, that men just don't cut it for her. Charlie unflinchingly records her view:

I always found it a challenge to love men. At first I just thought I had to, that I had no choice. I thought that men in general -- I'd really rather not say this -- were unlovable. But I mean, look at them. . . . Most of the ones I've known are bossy, or passive and obsessive, the men I mean, and after the age of twenty-five or so they are by most standards not beautiful.

Baxter does not limit himself to amorous love -- he also explores the love of parents for children, the love of folks for their dogs. (Bradley, who for a time cannot stay married, ends up with a dog companion also named Bradley.) In short, he writes an account of love in many of its varieties. His Feast of Love could be titled An Anatomy of Love. What elevates him above his contemporaries is his cunning simplicity. There are no tricks to his prose, just good stories told in inventive, clear, language.

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