Notes From a Genius Man: A Review of Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

4 min readAug 24, 2019
Photo by Léonard Cotte on Unsplash

I love writing. I always have. But sometimes the thought of writing is scary — not because writing itself terrifies me, but because the possibility of failure does. “What if my writing sucks? What if no one cares?”, these are things I ask myself all the time while sitting on my computer and staring at a blank word doc. I almost always end up picking up a book or switching to the Netflix tab. And let me tell you, it’s stupid. Asking myself “what if?” too soon paralyzes me and stops me from even trying.

The inherent stupidity of this habit of mine became obvious after reading Giovanni’s Room, a book that I adored from the first page. Most people know this novel as James Baldwin’s boldest move — he wrote a book about a white, gay man while he himself was deemed a “negro writer” by the literary community, and was expected to write about the African-American experience. There are dozens of articles out there that outline the impact this novel had on queer Americans and how its publication shifted the idea everyone had of what black writers were supposed to write, so I want this review to focus on something else: how David’s story relates to anyone with a dream they’re too scared to follow.

Giovanni’s Room is a relatively short novel about an American man called David who goes to Paris while his girlfriend Hella is in Spain thinking over his marriage proposal. At a bar in Paris, David meets Giovanni, an Italian man whom he falls for. They live in Giovanni’s room for a while, a small space that is disorderly and enclosed, two words that can also sum up their relationship as lovers. Giovanni gives himself to David, but David is reluctant and tells himself that love isn’t possible between two men. David’s inability to love freely consumes and rots him inside; he doesn’t let himself love Giovanni when they’re together, and he can’t stop thinking about him when they’re apart. He thinks constantly about what would happen if he left Hella for Giovanni and what his future with a man would look like.

David is also tormented by thoughts about his home: he wonders whether one can ever return to the place they grew up in and still feel at home, or whether we eventually drift apart from who we were. It’s an interesting take on what makes up a home. Is it the people? The…