Monday, August 13, 2018

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Published May 2018 by Little, Brown, and Company
Source: bought for my Nook

Publisher's Summary:
Who says you can't run away from your problems? You are a failed novelist about to turn fifty. A wedding invitation arrives in the mail: your boyfriend of the past nine years is engaged to someone else. You can't say yes--it would be too awkward--and you can't say no--it would look like defeat. On your desk are a series of invitations to half-baked literary events around the world.

QUESTION: How do you arrange to skip town?

ANSWER: You accept them all.

What would possibly go wrong? Arthur Less will almost fall in love in Paris, almost fall to his death in Berlin, barely escape to a Moroccan ski chalet from a Saharan sandstorm, accidentally book himself as the (only) writer-in-residence at a Christian Retreat Center in Southern India, and encounter, on a desert island in the Arabian Sea, the last person on Earth he wants to face. Somewhere in there: he will turn fifty. Through it all, there is his first love. And there is his last.

Because, despite all these mishaps, missteps, misunderstandings and mistakes, Less is, above all, a love story.

My Thoughts:
I've started this review three times. What remains of two of those opening paragraphs can now be found at the end of this review. They included points I wanted to make but they didn't say enough about this book. This book that won the Pulitzer Prize despite being a book that includes humor that made me laugh out loud. How often do serious prizes award books like that? How did that happen? Well, it probably happened because Less is really so much more.

This is a travelogue, the story of a man reaching middle age and feeling that he hasn't accomplished anything, a tale of friendship, the story of one man's life. Less is, above all, a love story. It is filled with pain and sadness, it is self-deprecating and funny, it is filled with yearning for the past without hope for the future.

Poor Arthur. He is a man who feels broken in so many ways! He travels the world with a glass half empty view on life and finds, time and again, that life is full of surprises, some of them amazingly wonderful. As Arthur travels, Greer moves the book back and forth in time, effortlessly, so that we learn just how Arthur became the man whose most prized possession was a medium blue suit, lined in fuchsia - "There is no Arthur Less without the suit."

Greer is a master at painting a picture, using the mundane to make the scene come alive:
"It was the year the cicadas returned: less had not been alive when they buried themselves in the earth. But now they returned: tens of thousands of them, horrifying but harmless, drunk driving through the air so they bumped into heads and ears, encrusting telephone poles and parked cars with the delicate, amber-hued, almost Egyptian discarded shells. Girls worse them as earrings. Boys (Tom Sawyer descendants) trapped the live ones in paper bags and released them at study hour. At night, the creatures hummed in huge choruses, the sound pulsing around the neighborhood And school would not end until June. If ever."
"...the endless series of shops, as if made from one continuous concrete barrier, painted at intervals with different signs advertising chickens and medicine, coffins and telephones, pet fish and cigarettes, hot tea and "homely" food, Communism, mattresses, handicrafts and dumbbells and gold by the ounce; the low, flat temples appearing at regular intervals like the colorful, elaborately frosted, but basically inedible sheet cakes displayed at Less's childhood bakery; the women sitting roadside with baskets of shimmering silver fish, terrifying manta rays, and squid, with their cartoon eyes; the countless men standing at tea shops, variety stores, pharmacies, watching Less as he goes by; the driver dodging bicycles, motorcycles, lorries (but few cars), moving frenetically in and out of traffic, bringing Less back to the time at Disney World when his mother led him and his sister to a whimsical ride based on The Wind In The Willows  - a ride that turned out to be a buckle-whitening rattletrap wellspring of trauma."
When we talk about reading more diversely, my brain always goes to the idea that I need to read more books by people of color. Which, of course, I do. What I tend to forget, in that conversation, are all of the books about people whose lives are nothing like mine, even though their skin color may be the same - inner city youths, back country "hill billies," and gay people. It's a shortcoming I'm going to work to remedy in the future. Because everyday I'm reminded that it's incumbent upon us to learn more about each other if we have any hope of understanding each other and coming together. And Greer taught me so much in this book.

I knew in 2009, after I read Greer's The Story of A Marriage, that I would read more books by Greer but for some reason I just haven't gotten around to it, even though I have two others on my Nook. It may be hard now to go back to those. Because Less won the freaking Pulitzer Prize for literature. I mean, how can those other books live up to that?! I suppose they may not. But, given my track record with Greer, I imagine they will still be well worth reading.

Oh, yes, I almost forgot this little gem that reminded me so much of watching baseball when my brother was playing and when my sons were:
"Nothing has happened in right field all season, which is why he was put there: a kind of athletic Canada."
It's a funny line but one that always reminds me how sad it was to watch those boys (including my younger son) who were stuck out in right field. They are so often the boys who have no interest in the sport, but whose parents so badly want them to be part of the team. Like Arthur's father, we parents often need to do a better job and finding the things that bring our children joy, instead of trying to make them fit into our expectations.


  1. This sounds like a great book, Lisa. I have tried to give my daughter an opportunity to try a variety of activities to find her niche. She loves everything. LOL She's really taken to dance--well, musical theater to be more accurate. Here I was kind of hoping she'd take to soccer! What's funny is, that growing up, I used to dream about being on stage and singing--everything she's doing now. It's what I wanted. I didn't intend for her to want that too. I don't feel I pushed her in any way. It comes naturally to her. Still, I find myself more vigilant about my own feelings. I don't want my expectations to get in the way of her doing something she loves--whether that be singing or whatever she decides to do.

    1. My husband so wanted our boys to play football. And I LOVE football. But the minute I heard those helmets crashing into each other close up, I decided I really, really didn't want my boys risking injury. Luckily for me, but sadly for their dad, neither of them wanted to pursue it. On the plus side, they both took to water like fish and were on the high school swim team and in a summer swim league. We loved watching them swim and are thrilled they have that life skill so it all worked out for the best. Plus, we met some of our best friends through the swim teams!

  2. It won a literary award and has gotten a lot of press. I remember seeing the author at the Festival of Books once. I really liked him but someone told me recently that this book was horrible. She didn't say why just begged me not to read it. What's that about? Because I already have a copy.