A really wonderful book takes you into its own world, and with The General and the Horse-Lord, I was taken into one full of people I adored... mostly. As you might guess from the title, it's not a standard genre romance. Despite a very contemporary setting, well represented by several college-aged characters, it has a bit of the feel of a novel written in the 30s or 40s — partially because of the quiet tone, but also because the two main characters are the sorts of men you might find in those novels. They're older men in a rapidly changing world, which has both bad and good points. (Think Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, only American and far more modern in setting.)
John and Gabriel are both extremely well respected former military men who have now moved on to other careers: John teaching, Gabriel in law. They've lived lives deeply committed to public service, bringing their considerable intelligence and education to their fields. One of the sacrifices they've made for their country is each other: the joy of sleeping in the same bed, waking up together, and sharing their daily lives, instead of just snatched moments.
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There are two intertwined storylines. One involves John's effervescent nephew Kim, one of the most beguiling characters you'd ever want to meet, who has been preyed upon and physically abused by one of his professors. John's protective interests and strong sense of justice are both outraged, and he's determined to see the man punished. Kim, a gay man from a completely different era, has issues with both John's tactics and John's closeted life.
John is used to a generation gap, seeing most of the young people he teaches as having no intellectual curiosity or sense of duty. But he's touched and humbled by the creativity and glowing sense of self he finds in his nephew and Kim's friends: “boys filled with light... the happy ones, the boys who accept themselves.” They represent something he's never even thought to dream of having.
“John had never before had any expectations. He'd never waited for someone who wasn't coming. He put the work first, had always assumed he would be alone, and so he was never disappointed...No the possibility existed for something more. Gabriel had started whispers of longing deep in his chest—why can't we have this...”
The other plotline is the really tricky one: Gabriel has decided to divorce his wife. Yes... Gabriel is married, with two children, and has been cheating on his wife with John for their entire marriage. He is trying not to by leaving her for John, but can't deny how much he longs for a peaceful domestic life with the person he loves. It is, in fact, exactly what he always wanted... but he made the mistake of believing he could find it with a woman.
“I guess I thought it was just a matter of working at it, trying hard to take care of everyone, make them all happy. It's been a hard lesson for me to swallow. That I can't succeed at the things that mean the most to me. That I can fail at something so important. But I can't change who I am or how I feel, through force of will. And I've started to wonder... why can't I be happy too?”
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Gabriel's dilemma is depicted in a way that's very relatable. We can see why he came to make such a huge mistake and tried to make it work:
“You were doing the work the country asked you to do. It was important. And they wouldn't have let you do it if anyone had though you were gay. Gabriel, do you remember what it was like? It's easy to forget the way it used to be, the hazing, the violence. I've not forgotten.”
John and Gabriel's love for each other shines throughout the book. It's a tender, private love; even the sex scenes are very low-key and tend to fade to black, as if not wanting to intrude. But we can feel how well they know each other and how right they are together. I had to root for them.
But someone is left out of this equation: Martha, Gabriel's wife. I think the book tries to be fair to her; John thinks of her as “a fine person, strong and resolute in a way that had always appealed to Gabriel.” But she remains mostly an abstraction, and ultimately, the only one in the cast of lovable characters who comes off badly. She's embittered and vengeful, and given no real recognition of her right to feel that way. No matter how much I understood and sympathized with Gabriel and John, I can't help but feel she was cheated, on many levels. And I felt cheated out of being able to truly accept what Gabriel did, because his victim was villanized rather than fully realized.
It's hard to see characters you love for their sense of honor behave dishonorably. For that reason, this has to have a “but” attached to my “I loved it.” But... I still loved it.
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