by Tomasz Jedrowski
Review by Kelly Noble
I love this story but (spoiler alert) the ending is sad. This is a captivating love story between two young college students set in Communist Poland in the 1980s. . .a love story that mirrors life in many ways with all its pain and suffering. This novel is beautifully written and captivates the reader in such a way that I found it difficult to put down. I wanted to know the ending. I wanted to see some positive outcomes from this relationship.
To my disappointment, it ends the way many relationships end. Both characters denied what they wanted and ended up unhappy in separate places. Heartbreaking as it may be, the characters understand this suffering well. After reading the last note from Janusz, Ludwik remembers, “Because you were right when you said that people can’t always give us what we want from them; that you can’t ask them to love you the way you want.”
Being gay may be difficult enough in western countries, but it seems more dangerous in communist ones. This love story is set in Communist Poland. Two young college students meet and spiral into a relationship that they both know to be dangerous. Not only for them, but for their families as well. As the novel progresses, both see diverse ways forward in life. Janusz seeks to work within the government for changes and Ludwik seeks to join the protests and demonstrations against the government.
As the story unfolds, both men are questioning their trajectories in life, but they never question their love for each other. The discouraging part of the story is that both know they cannot live the life they want. They cannot be together as lovers in a society that condemns homosexuality.
As the communist government starts to close in on Ludwik, he plans his escape to the West. He tries hard to convince Janusz to leave Poland with him. Janusz does not want to leave but ends up living in a marriage to a friend that he knows is just a front. He uses it to get ahead in the communist government.
There is no question of who Janusz truly loves, he makes this clear in a final note to Ludwik, “I adore this book (Giovanni’s Room) more than you knew. I want to keep it…but it’s yours. Bring it back one day if you can. I’ll be here. J.” The novel ends with Ludwik living alone in New York, and Janusz living with his wife and child in Poland.
I found the story fascinating yet depressing. How many relationships end because of discrimination? I once thought that love would conquer all, but that is not the reality of the world we live in. I do highly recommend this novel. It is an excellent read. The story has a sad ending, but I believe the more we learn about the impact of discrimination, especially on the LGBT community, the more we can change the future.