Love may be universal, but no one writes about love quite like Edmund White. The veteran author returns with The Humble Lover, an outrageous, tender novel that complicates contemporary ideas of what traditional, “appropriate” desires and relationships look like.
Aldwych West is an aging elite who spends his money trying to woo the latest object of his affection, a ballerino (that’s the male form of ballerina) named August Dupond. Very quickly, the two men become entangled—emotionally, financially and physically. But Aldwych isn’t the only one with ambitions; his inheritance-hungry niece-in-law, Ernestine, also wants to win August over, even as the young man moves in with Aldwych. In this complicated web of desire and wealth, everyone chases ecstasy, no matter the cost.
White has been pushing the boundaries of what love can be since the beginning of his career. With The Joy of Gay Sex in 1977, White (with co-author Charles Silverstein) helped to codify the sexual, psychological and spiritual pleasures of gay life. This holistic concept of pleasure is present as White plumbs the depths of Aldwych’s desires, detailing the man’s insecurity and loneliness—though of course, there are still thrilling moments that brim with sexuality, both inhibited and explicit. When Aldwych first invites August to stay with him, he restrains himself, and even though they are half-naked in the same bed, all they do is lie next to each other and sleep. When sex does appear on the page, it is ecstatic—tinged with, or perhaps enhanced by, the pain and hunger of uneven power dynamics.
The Humble Lover could be categorized as a political satire, but that would imply a target. Rather than going on a tirade, White forces readers to become intimate with what they might otherwise denounce. At first blush, Aldwych’s desperation is repulsive, particularly considering his vast wealth and the age gap between him and August, but the closer we get to Aldwych, the more relatable his misery is. He is searching for something, maybe youth, maybe affection, maybe acceptance, and White keeps his journey engaging, hilarious and moving throughout.
As Ernestine clashes with Aldwych, and August defies Aldwych’s wishes, we become more and more invested, wondering which of these characters will finally get what they want. Filled with sublime descriptions of ballet and Aldwych’s out-of-touch, affluent sensibility, this novel is as mischievous as it is thought-provoking. It is Edmund White at his very best.