BookBrowse Reviews Less by Andrew Sean Greer

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Less by Andrew Sean Greer
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  • Published:
    Jul 2017, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite

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A scintillating satire of the American abroad, a rumination on time and the human heart, and a bittersweet romance of chances lost.

Arthur Less, the main character of Andrew Sean Greer's delightful new comic novel, Less, is a forty-nine year old gay man. He is a writer, and a moderately successful one, but when his story opens, Arthur is running away. To be precise, he is running away from the wedding of his former lover, Freddy. Rather than attend this event, Arthur has seized on an array of invitations to small-time literary jobs – interviewing another author, attending an awards ceremony, teaching a creative class for a number of weeks, even being a food critic – that will take him across the US and the world.

Certainly hapless, at times helpless, but consistently lovable, Arthur Less's global misadventures are a pleasure to read. Less opens with him waiting in a hotel lobby prior to interviewing a highly successful writer in New York. That he is not wearing a watch, that he is sitting beneath a broken clock so he has no idea what time it is, that he is waiting to be collected by someone who thinks he is female: these things set the comic tone for the story that unfolds. But for Arthur Less, none of these matters is of consequence. What matters is that he is on the first leg of a journey to as far away from San Francisco as possible — a journey that will take him to Mexico City, Turin, Berlin, Morocco, India and Japan.

Several factors contribute to the success of Less. First, there is Andrew Sean Greer's gift of description. At each of Arthur Less's stopping points, Greer captures place and people vividly and succinctly. In a Mexican market there are "grey octopuses coiled in ampersands" and "bitter chocolates… piled in ziggurats beside a basket of Aztec whisks." In Berlin, Less admires "the glorious junkyard of the city" and a different kind of market selling "cheap socks, stolen bicycles and plastic lamps." From the sandstorms of Morocco to the formal gardens of Japan, Less provides a rich and enticing travelogue.

Then there is Arthur Less, a man made for comic misadventure. In Berlin, for example, he has agreed to teach a five-week course "on a subject of Mr. Less's choosing." He is happy to do so, particularly because he believes he is fluent in German. He is not. Skewering literary jealousies, the vagaries of literary prizes and most brilliantly, creative writing classes, Greer weaves a humorous voyage of adventure and mishap with many laugh-out-loud moments. Less, a humble innocent abroad, is an aptly named and attractive character. Perhaps because of his long-term prior relationship with an older, Pulitzer prize-winning poet, Less believes he lives up to his name. He is a lesser man, the last man to expect to win a literary award, the kind of man who locks himself out of hotel rooms and loses his suitcases. But he also proves to be a man who is caring, selfless, open and young at heart. The people he meets, warm to him. He is far more attractive than he believes himself to be, a Peter Pan figure in a light blue suit, on a voyage of self-discovery.

Less is also a love story with many bittersweet moments. Thoughts of Freddy's marriage haunt Arthur, even as he takes a lover in Berlin and comes up with a plan to re-write his new novel, after his publisher rejects it. As he completes his global journey and comes to terms with "the tragi-comic business of being alive" his story wraps up with a warm-hearted and fitting conclusion. Overall, this is a charming tale, very well told.

Reviewed by Kate Braithwaite

This review is from the September 6, 2017 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.



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