Customer Reviews: The Charioteer
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on October 29, 2002
Reading this book as a heterosexual female, I can't say that I identified with any of the characters; but Mary Renault has written a remarkable book that explores the issue of love from various sides and gives us an in-depth view of a people coming to terms with their own sexuality and what it will mean for them in the world at large. The time is 1940 and the place is England just after the retreat from Dunkirk; in the memorable words of Winston Churchill, it was their finest hour.

At the center of the book is Laurie Odell, wounded in action, waking up in a military hospital to the fact that he will be crippled for life. The problem for Laurie is that he fears being emotionally crippled as well. Laurie is a graduate of a rigid British prep school where the head boy, Ralph Lanyon, was the object of his hero worship; Ralph is kicked out in a sensational scandal involving a hysterical accusation of homosexual activity with another boy in the school. Laurie is sexually attracted to Ralph and when Ralph is expelled, he realizes that the attraction was mutual, but that Ralph never approached him because he knew better than Laurie himself did that Laurie hadn't awakened to his own sexual orientation yet, and Ralph was not about to take that responsibility for him. While recuperating in the hospital, Laurie meets Andrew, a young conscientious objector who looks up to him as Laurie had looked up to Ralph. Andrew, however, is a total innocent, and his uncompromising religious views would make him look upon homosexual love as an abomination, even while he is attracted to Laurie. While on leave from the hospital, Laurie runs into Ralph, whom he hadn't seen since he was expelled from prep school seven years earlier, and learns that it was Ralph who piloted the navy boat that rescued him from Dunkirk. Ralph has been wounded as well, however, having had half his hand shot off, so the two of them are basically free and unfettered to start a relationship.

Ralph has grown hard and cynical after seven years of searching for love with increasingly superficial partners, and he has hit rock bottom with his current partner, whose sole attraction is his dazzling good looks. The attraction between Ralph and Laurie is immediate and compelling, and throws Laurie into a dilemma: he can hook up with Ralph and face up to the fact of his homosexuality which he has been hiding from everyone, including himself; or he can remain on a platonic basis with Andrew and remain sexually frustrated. At the core of his problem is trying to resolve how one can be gay and maintain his integrity at the same time. After meeting some of Ralph's associates, he isn't so sure. Laurie doesn't want to be dragged into the gay milieu, and Ralph sees Laurie as his means of escape from that milieu, and the bottom line for them both is, are they homosexual men, or are they men who happen to be homosexual.

Things get complicated when Laurie tells Ralph about Andrew (one of the things that attracts Ralph to Laurie is his fundamental honesty) and although he understands Laurie's dilemma, Ralph isn't about to let him off the hook; he tells Laurie that he has a choice: he can continue to help Andrew tell lies to himself about himself, or he can help Andrew face up to what he is. Laurie doesn't want that responsibility with Andrew any more than Ralph wanted it with him seven years earlier, and he temporizes until someone intervenes and Andrew has to face his own nature up close and personal. The resulting explosion shakes everyone up; Laurie finally realizes that being human ultimately means being true to oneself. What that means for Laurie is resolved at the end of the book.

There are several interesting secondary characters in the story, including Alec, one of Ralph's previous partners, decent, honest, but unable to commit more than superfically, and Sandy, Alec's current partner, insecure, demanding, jealous, but also capable of love, and Bunny, Ralph's latest, despicable, devious, and totally amoral. But the three main characters are the most compelling: Andrew, whose rigid, unbending morality finally makes him snap; Ralph, hard, jaded, yet with a core of innocence and trust that still makes him believe that love is not a myth; and Laurie himself, trying to resolve who he is and what he stands for as a man and as a human being. For all its being a World War II story, the problems and issues are timeless and make the book as fresh today as it was 60 years ago when it was first issued. Mary Renault has shown with "The Charioteer" that she is not only a great historical novelist, she is one of the best writers of the 20th century.

Judy Lind
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The complicated romances of closeted gay men in England at the height of World War II seems an unlikely subject, but Renault endows The Charioteer with such depth of perception that virtually any reader will be fascinated by her story of three young men who strive to reconcile the frequently opposing forces of sex, love, and personal integrity in their lives and relationships. Considerably more than just a "gay love story," Renault's novel examines what it means to be completely honest and completely fair in even the most difficult of relationships at even the most difficult moments of life.
Written with both on-the-surface (as in the myth of the Charioteer) and covert (it is no accident that many of the characters are in some way physically damaged, or that the story is set during England's darkest hours of the war) symbolism, Renault's novel encourages the reader to take time over it. Although sometimes demanding, the book casts a spell; I can honestly say that I did not want it to end, but I wanted to know more about what the future held for the characters. It is a book to which readers will return again and again.
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on October 5, 1997
I have been a firm Mary Renault fan ever since I read her first historical romance -- The Persian Boy
Until I
came across the Charioteer, I had always thought that she
specialised in writing hsitorical works, I had no idea that
she started out writing novels set in contemporary times

I live in a Muslim country where homosexuality is not
Although I'm not a Muslim and am a hextro
sexual, I too was very biased against homosexuality

I never saw gays as being normal -- they were an abomination
I thought
Two books were instrumental in me changing the
way I looked at homosexuality. One was the Persian Boy
also by Ms Renault and the other, The Charioteer

This book made me realise that in the end, all people are the same
regardless of their sexual orientation. Ms Renault portrayed
the characters beautifully and showed very positive images
of gay men and the conflict that they go through.

Although in most western countries the climate is very free
for gay men to come out, here in the east, especially a
conservative country like mine, the situation is still like
what it is described in the book

For me personally, I have never been able to get the two
main characters, Ralph and Laurie out of my head. My only
regret is that Ms Renault never furnished a sequel for
the novel because it ends rather abruptly. Although it is implied in
the novel that Laurie will forgive Ralph, I am dying to know
what happens to them say, five years down the road.

For all those homophobics out there, this is one book which
you must read. Ms Renault is proof that the msot intense
emotions and love can still be explained without having
to resort to graphic sex scenes which are so prevalent
in today's books.
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on October 28, 2001
"The Charioteer" is one of the most beautiful love stories I have ever read, I hadn't felt such intense emotions reading a book since my adolescence. Before and much more than being a gay story, this is first of all a novel about love, showing in a most powerful way how all life is a struggle to love and to be loved, because only by giving and receving love one can feel alive and life is meaningful and worth being lived.
The three main characters, each of them absolutely fascinating and superbly portrayed, discover and are confronted with their own true nature when falling in love, but they also have to make choices and take on responsibilities which often seem unbearable. Love is shown through all its sweetness and romance but also in all its terribly dramatic implications: love always means suffering and none of the characters is spared his share of pain and defeat. But the force of life triumphs despite everyone's conflicts, limitations and mistakes, which must be coped with and accepted in mutual respect and forgiveness.
The young protagonists are brought to life in an amazingly effective way and they are so vivid and forceful that they outlive the end of the book itself. The reader can share their most intimate thoughts and the decisive turns of their lives and is therefore bound to feel strong compassion. I am not surprised that a lot of readers wish there had a been a sequel of the novel, but I believe the author did the right thing not writing one. The end of the story leaves very open prospects and, especially considering the circular structure the novel acquires at its conclusion, all the characters are liable to being again together in their maturity and it is better to let the reader imagine possible evolutions.
The narrative scheme is very solid and well balanced, all parts of the book contribute to light up the whole plot; the text flows slowly but continuously and once you adapt yourself to the inner rhythm of the story you are fully involved and almost become a part of it, each line adding a relevant detail or setting the suitable atmosphere to lead you deeper into the characters' inner thoughts and feelings; the language is rich though never mannered and the style is often very poetic but never in a cheap way.
"The Charioteer" certainly stands also as a great gay story and is very effective in demonstrating the universality of love, which transcends lovers' genders and social barriers. Its explict homosexual theme is all the more surprising if one thinks the book was written almost fifty years ago, when to state that love between two men has the same dignity as heterosexual love was certainly a hard challenge, and that it was written by a woman, as the protagonists are absolutely and coherently credible and masculine in their appearance and psychology.
Needless to say a wonderful film would come out of this book. I do wish a talented director could see to this undertaking. I find Matt Damon (especially after being Mr Ripley) would make a perfect Laurie Odell and he might also be the film director and producer himself.
Reading "The Charioteer" can be a heart-wrenching experience and cause to shed more than one tear, especially if one is in love, but it also makes one feel more attached to the beauty of life and long for youth and pure, noble, authentic love, the most important of all things. This novel and its appealing characters, Laurie, Andrew and Ralph, will always remain in my mind and heart as wonderful companions of my youth, revealers of the complexity and fragility of the human soul and of myself, an important landmark in the search for my identity of adult gay man.
It is a shame that "The Charioteer" is not translated into Italian. It is certainly the kind of book it can be difficult to read in a second language and I sometimes experienced this difficulty myself. Now it has become my dream to translate it into my first language one day because I want such a beautiful novel to be accessible to all Italian readers.
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on March 11, 1999
I first read this book because it was mentioned in Bruce Bawer's "A Place at the Table". I never expected that it would impact me so startlingly! I identified very closely with Laurie Odell, the main character, and his struggles with experiencing love as a gay man. All of the characters in the book are well-developed, even ones we don't meet very often. Renault manages to put together a wonderful, sometimes heart-wrenching story that doesn't restrict itself to people with gay experiences. ANYONE could read this book and feel total empathy with Laurie. I heartily recommend this book to anyone who has the least interest in reading a love story--it won't disappoint. I only wish that the story could have continued, perhaps in a sequel. Still, a very touching and satisfying tale.
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on January 15, 2001
I read this book before ever indulging in Mary Renault's ancient Greek fiction, although this story is every bit as entertaining, even set in World War II.
The two main characters, Laurie and Ralph, struggle with their love for one another as well as their devotion and dedication to their relationship, and their friendship as well.
This book is every bit as timeless as the ancient Greece novels, yet a bit dated of a read amidst modern day views and sensibilities about homosexual relationships. It does, however, send readers back to a time where more value was placed upon the root of a relationship and of love. It transcends the need for graphic sexual display, yet does not hide the nature of the involvement between the two men.
Of all the homosexual themed novels I have read, this is far and away my favorite. Even though it was written over forty years ago, it stands the test of time in its message of understanding the value of love, regardless of gender.
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on August 3, 2004
The book reviewers have eloquently described the characters and plot of the book. I would add though, while repeating some reviewers, that we follow a young man's journey through self-recognition and with all his dignity intact, chooses the path he deems for himself.It is a model of how to think and act while maintaining pride,in one's eyes and in others. It is painful, as he chooses a life considered perverted by a society in a time that considers homosexuality an illness and all who are homosexuals to be shunned and ridiculed. Laurie chooses his path with his past experiences in life, situations, philosophical and poetical knowledge as guide posts. The ending is bittersweet but triumphant. A bible on how to act, on your own to find the life that will give you happiness

Mary Renault's writing is magical. With her use of metaphors, similes and quotations from classical literature, the author creates a person realistic, sensitive and sympathetic. The reader is uplifted.
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on January 22, 2005
If it is possible for a novel to enhance a persons life, then 'The Charioteer' did that for me. I first read the book over 20 years ago and its effect was profound. Each time I have re-read it, further insights into the characters and the era have unfolded. I have spoken to gay men of that time who have read the book and they confirm the complexities of homsexual relationships as written by Ms Renault. How different the'scene' is half a century later - and then, how similar. Very different from her historical novels, 'The Charioteer' is a study of humanity that places her firmly in company of the greats!
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on January 3, 1999
As a young man still exploring my sexuality, The Charioteer fell into my hands. I might call it providence, for Mary Renault's novel, more than any other I have read, has affirmed me in my own journey...and challanged me. Her novel is not exclusively about homosexuality though, it is a novel about all people filled with compassion and insight. This book contains wisdom, for this reason it belongs on all "must read" lists.
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on September 17, 2006
I agree that I have always pictured this as a movie. It seemed like a natural subject for Merchant and Ivory, though it is too late for that, now. Someone said it isn't a historical title, but since I didn't live through WWII on the British home front, it was for me. The immediacy of war---the black out, people dying in their own homes, all young men being military---this is what seemed most striking about the book. Juxtaposed against the backdrop of a world where none of the old promises hold true and where tomorrow may not come, friendship and romance become the proof of humanity. Since there is always a tendency to cling to the tattered shreds of the past in times of crisis, a romance that defies taboo is especially humane.

But please, use British actors. Make them the right age, too. These are kids. If only Laurence Olivier was alive and young. I get the feeling that Ralph was modeled on him.
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