Le Berceau: Some Positive Reviews!
A week has passed since Le Berceau was released on the Bold Strokes Books website, and will soon be available on other online vendors. The novella may only be a short read, but already some very kind words have come in. Some very interesting points have also been raised. A lot of important questions have been asked. I would like to take a moment to discuss a few of those here.
Firstly, I would like to thank those who have already read it for some very touching compliments. For example, one reader on Netgalley.com said: "A day of lazy sunshine set on a luxury yacht gives the background to what is a true coming of age story. Not just coming of age but more to learn about yourself. Doubts of what you think is true love brought out into the sunshine to explain to yourself that maybe its not the true one and only love of your life and that there are many more to look forward to. Sounding like a philosophical waste of time it actual is well worth a read." Another reader said, while quoting a line from the book: “Have I settled down too soon? Or is greener grass simply overrated?" that’s an interesting question and the reason I was intrigued by this story."
Both reviewers left 4 Star reviews, and I thank you them both for this. Now, I'd like to try and answer a few questions that were kindly posed to me.
The Age Difference
One important point that has been raised is the age difference between Ben and Leo. Some readers clearly had a problem with this.
Ben is twenty-one, and a very immature twenty-one-year-old at that! He is smart, educated, but not in full command of his emotions yet. His mind jumps from thought to thought at speed, barely taking the time to finish each musing. Leo, on the other hand, is a very wise and mature sixteen-year-old. He keeps Ben constantly on his toes and matches him, intellectually, at every turn. We also feel as though Ben learns a lot from him, while recognizing his own feelings of inferiority within Leo's shadow. Toward the end, we watch Ben begin a process of maturation, while Leo's own doubts and life-inexperience begin to surface as he lets down his guard. It appears as though balance is being restored.
I remember André Aciman receiving similar critiques for the age difference between Elio (17) and Oliver (24) in Call Me By Your Name. This beautiful book is set in Italy, while Le Berceau is set in France - both countries maintaining ages of consent lower than all respective characters in both books. However, I understand that for readers from other countries, this may not be culturally or socially acceptable. But this is not relevant in the world of Ben and Leo. In their world, on that particular day, in their little romantic bubble, they will not be thinking that the highest age of consent in the world is in Bahrain (21), or that in Japan, most young people lose their virginity in their twenties, despite maintaining a much lower age of consent. As an author, I cannot be responsible for every reader's own cultural expectations, and I must be equally willing to question them when I desire to.
In fact, aside from the physical numbers attributed to Ben and Leo's respective ages, there is a heavier focus on the maturity levels of both characters. Ben acknowledges this several times. Leo's adolescent beauty is constantly being played off against his advanced understanding of life. There is one particularly voyeuristic scene where Ben subtly pleasures himself under the surface of the water, much to Leo's obliviousness. On achieving climax, Ben immediately feels crushing guilt, but this is more to do with the knowledge that he took advantage of a situation for his own selfish, lustful gratification. He becomes immediately overwhelmed by shame for having performed this act within a shared space, while simultaneously being in another relationship with his bed-ridden boyfriend, Gabriel. I think anybody would feel disgusted in themselves, considering the combination of factors that declare this scene inappropriate. In fact, I can honestly say that I am glad to have made a few reviewers feel equally dirty for having enjoyed that scene. I like to think they were engaged enough to feel empathy with the Ben in that moment. It is a scene that blurs a boundary that many writers may not wish to cross themselves: the boundary between eroticism and much darker intentions. The truth is, it is quite a sinister scene that makes Ben question his sexual morality.
For those who intend to read Le Berceau, beware that this may contain a SPOILER ALERT! Scroll down to the next paragraph NOW to avoid this...................I must take a moment to clarify another fact related to Ben and Leo's relationship. They do not actually have a sexual relationship in this book. I know! It is meant to be erotica! There is a rather lengthy description of a sex scene in Part 3 of the book, but I think it is quite clear that this is nothing more than one of Ben's erotic fantasies. Throughout the book, passages in italics are unconscious thoughts in Ben's mind. It is his internal dialogue with himself. They are questions he asks himself and sarcastic comments he passes to himself - all of which are separate thoughts from his narrative, which is to appear more present as a result. This entire scene, spanning several pages of detailed, sexual engagement, is entirely in italics, thus telling us that it is not really happening. It is a daydream. A summer rêverie. But, of course, no less erotic for being so.
What Happens to Gabriel and Ava?
I am so thrilled that secondary characters, Gabriel and Ava, were so well liked! In fact, it seemed to be a universal statement from the majority of reviewers that they wanted to know more about Gabriel and Ava. Some wanted the novella to be fleshed out into a longer work to take in more of their story lines. Others hinted at several shorter stories.
I enjoyed writing their roles. It was very important to me that Gabriel is likeable and, crucially for Ben, lovable. I need the audience to feel enough connection to him that when he becomes the object of the reader's pity, as Ben's infatuation with Leo accelerates, we find our affections torn between the intensity of both relationships.
Gabriel's backstory is well discussed. We learn about his Christian upbringing and his own struggle for self-acceptance. We know what he wants out of the relationship and, although on the day in which the novella is set he is laid up in bed, we get a good sense of how he really feels about Ben. Obviously, his sickness prevents any amorousness between the pair on that day, but we get enough stimulation from Ben's recounting of their sexual past.
Whereas Gabriel's intentions are as clear as day (if not overly discussed), Ava's story is a lot more ambiguous. I understand that many readers would want to know more, but it wasn't my desire to "spoon feed" too much to the reader in this book. Ava is a prime example of this novella's main theme of inconclusiveness. There are a lot of unanswered questions, which may seem as if the story hasn't been fleshed out enough. But the reason for this is to avoid the binary: "This happens/This does not happen". The reader will have to make some conclusions of their own, which, as a fellow reader, I love it when an author presents me with such a challenge. I find it equally as stimulating as when I view a piece of abstract art or when I attend a concert of contemporary Classical music. I enjoy going home with more questions than when I set out. It keeps me stimulated for the next few days.
My intention of setting this novella over the course of a single day, and not a long weekend (or even longer), was to open a literary can of worms and then leave it up to the reader to do the hard work. A stage director friend of mine often attributes the opposite of this working method to German opera composer, Richard Wagner. She often scorns his work, claiming that he "tells the audience what to feel." (Question this as you wish).
Let me now explain areas of the novella which are left relatively open: Ava. What was that book she was reading? The mysterious book in a foreign language with the cover taped over. Why is she not attracted to Leo, when they are the same age, with similar interests, and he is clearly very beautiful? Why, in her closing dialogue with Ben, does he offer to introduce her to his mother's lesbian witch friend? I'm confused just writing this. But I think I have given enough hints that she might be questioning her sexuality, also. I put the emphasis on might. I have planned no future for her, but I hope another reader might do so.
Speaking of sexuality, what about Leo? Is he gay or isn't he? The lingering hug and kiss on the cheek on the dinghy might suggest it. But in his speech, I reflected the words of my very own partner, who is both gay and suffers from depression. There are a lot of things my partner says, which can be attributed to both his depression and his journey with his sexuality. I wanted to leave this quite open. Is Leo's cheerful, charming, pleasing demeanor a shield to hide his declining mental health? Or his he harboring some deeper, romantic inclinations toward Ben? Again, I have planned no future for them. But another reader might.
Ben and Gabriel. Will they be happy again? I must emphasize that this novella is set over the course of a single day! It would be naïve of anyone to expect that Ben will discover a flaw in his relationship, battle with what he really wants, and then conclude that he was actually fine after all, in a single day! In fact, I may have already sped up the process by a few unrealistic notches. No, we do not have a conclusion here. Only a hint that, perhaps, they will be fine after all. At no point did I intend on exploring Ben's journey to re-spark his connection with Gabriel. But I am glad to suggest to the audience that that would be the natural path for these two. I haven't planned their future, but another reader might!
Inconclusiveness plays a larger part in this novella than one might expect. But that is, after all, why I chose to set this story over a single day!
Why the Title?
The reason for the title, Le Berceau, is quite simple. The cradling motion it implies is appropriate for a day on the waters of the French Riviera. The words are also used in the erotic scene between Ben and Leo, where they cradle each other in their arms.
The French language is used in both the title and, on occasion along with some Italian, in the dialogue. The language of the book is English, although the characters have their roots in French and Italian. Ben, himself, is fluent in French, Italian, and English. Leo is Franco-Italian, Ava reads Italian books, and they all live close to the French/Italian border. The occasional peppering of French/Italian words within the story helps to capture the heat of their Southern Mediterranean culture. There isn't enough there to confuse a monolingual English reader, but I hope it helps to take them into Ben and Leo's place and experience the culture with them. A lazy audience would probably not care for the occasional French/Italian words, but a quick Google search will help with any trace of language barrier.
I'd like to thank again all who have read the book so far. The kind words are very touching and the questions thoughtful. I hope I have been able to clear up any lingering thoughts. Now, take the story farther in your mind. Be the architect of what comes next. It's amazing what can be sparked off by a single day at sea! - JX