Thursday, May 02, 2019

Fiction Review: Leading Men

The first book I read for this year’s annual Booktopia VT event was Leading Men by Christopher Castellani. This novel about Tennessee Williams and his real-life partner from New Jersey particularly caught my attention because the author is originally from Wilmington, Delaware, where we live. Our local newspaper did a big story of him and this new fifth book shortly after the Booktopia line-up was announced, so I was doubly intrigued.

In real life, the famous playwright Tennessee Williams had a 15-year love affair with Frank Merlo, an exuberant young Italian-American man from New Jersey, raised in a blue-collar family. It has been well-documented that the pair spent the summer of 1953, at the height of their relationship, in Italy. In this novel, Castellani takes a real-life event – a party hosted by Truman Capote in the Italian coastal town of Portofino that summer – and imagines what might have happened between Tenn and Frank and their friends that forever changed each of their lives. Much of the action of the novel takes place over that one weekend in sun-drenched Portofino among the beautiful people, though there are also passages about Frank’s death from cancer ten years later and chapters that take place in the present-day, from the perspective of an aging actress named Anja who met Tenn and Frank over that sultry weekend that launched her career.

It took me a little while to get into this novel (possibly because I was reading in short spurts at the beginning), but once I got to know the characters a bit, I was hooked. Castellani takes full advantage of the exotic setting, painting a vivid image of the picturesque town and the lives of its wealthy visitors. There’s a lot more depth to the novel, though, than just the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Castellani frames this weekend as one where people meet for the first time and forever remain a part of each other’s lives. He also delves deep into the relationship between Tenn and Frank – the good, the bad, and the ugly – based in part on historical documents, letters, and memoirs of the famed playwright and filling in the rest with his imagination. There is even a long-lost final play by Williams to add to the intrigue.  This unique novel that mixes fact and fiction completely entranced me and brought me into its world, so far removed from my own. I was immersed from beginning to end and am looking forward to reading more from this new-to-me writer…and meeting him this weekend!

354 pages, Viking

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Listen to a sample of the audio book. I read this one in print, but I think I would have enjoyed hearing the Italian sprinkled in on the audio.
You can purchase Leading Men from an independent bookstore, either locally or online, here:
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One suggestion: Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, VT, which is hosting Booktopia this weekend:
Or you can order Leading Men from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.


  1. I think it's interesting when authors take real life events and spin them into a story that isn't real by pretending that something happened. When I'm reading the book, I often forget it isn't the truth. :-)

    1. Yes! That mix of history and fiction is always intriguing!

  2. I've been having trouble getting into books lately because I only seem to have those short spurts to read in. This sounds like a book I'd love.

    1. It was excellent - and I loved meeting the author this weekend! Now I want to read some of his backlist, too.