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A timeless love story
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.