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Leading Men

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An expansive yet intimate story of desire, artistic ambition, and fidelity, set in the glamorous literary and film circles of 1950s Italy In July of 1953, at a glittering party thrown by Truman Capote in Portofino, Italy, Tennessee Williams and his longtime lover Frank Merlo meet Anja Blomgren, a mysteriously taciturn young Swedish beauty and aspiring actress. Their encount An expansive yet intimate story of desire, artistic ambition, and fidelity, set in the glamorous literary and film circles of 1950s Italy In July of 1953, at a glittering party thrown by Truman Capote in Portofino, Italy, Tennessee Williams and his longtime lover Frank Merlo meet Anja Blomgren, a mysteriously taciturn young Swedish beauty and aspiring actress. Their encounter will go on to alter all of their lives. Ten years later, Frank revisits the tempestuous events of that fateful summer from his deathbed in Manhattan, where he waits anxiously for Tennessee to visit him one final time. Anja, now legendary film icon Anja Bloom, lives as a recluse in the present-day U.S., until a young man connected to the events of 1953 lures her reluctantly back into the spotlight after he discovers she possesses the only surviving copy of Williams's final play. What keeps two people together and what breaks them apart? Can we save someone else if we can't save ourselves? Like The Master and The Hours, Leading Men seamlessly weaves fact and fiction to navigate the tensions between public figures and their private lives. In an ultimately heartbreaking story about the burdens of fame and the complex negotiations of life in the shadows of greatness, Castellani creates an unforgettable leading lady in Anja Bloom and reveals the hidden machinery of one of the great literary love stories of the twentieth-century.


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An expansive yet intimate story of desire, artistic ambition, and fidelity, set in the glamorous literary and film circles of 1950s Italy In July of 1953, at a glittering party thrown by Truman Capote in Portofino, Italy, Tennessee Williams and his longtime lover Frank Merlo meet Anja Blomgren, a mysteriously taciturn young Swedish beauty and aspiring actress. Their encount An expansive yet intimate story of desire, artistic ambition, and fidelity, set in the glamorous literary and film circles of 1950s Italy In July of 1953, at a glittering party thrown by Truman Capote in Portofino, Italy, Tennessee Williams and his longtime lover Frank Merlo meet Anja Blomgren, a mysteriously taciturn young Swedish beauty and aspiring actress. Their encounter will go on to alter all of their lives. Ten years later, Frank revisits the tempestuous events of that fateful summer from his deathbed in Manhattan, where he waits anxiously for Tennessee to visit him one final time. Anja, now legendary film icon Anja Bloom, lives as a recluse in the present-day U.S., until a young man connected to the events of 1953 lures her reluctantly back into the spotlight after he discovers she possesses the only surviving copy of Williams's final play. What keeps two people together and what breaks them apart? Can we save someone else if we can't save ourselves? Like The Master and The Hours, Leading Men seamlessly weaves fact and fiction to navigate the tensions between public figures and their private lives. In an ultimately heartbreaking story about the burdens of fame and the complex negotiations of life in the shadows of greatness, Castellani creates an unforgettable leading lady in Anja Bloom and reveals the hidden machinery of one of the great literary love stories of the twentieth-century.

30 review for Leading Men

  1. 4 out of 5

    Tammy

    Beginning in 1953 some of the glitterati of the literati are the leading men of this novel. The big names here are Tennessee Williams and the malicious gossip Truman Capote (he makes only a few appearances). The other two leading men are Williams’ partner/assistant/nursemaid the good natured and reliable, Frank Merlo, and the lesser known author John Horne Burns. As he lay dying in 1963, Merlo revisits a tumultuous summer with Williams and his role as bit player standing in the massive shadow of Beginning in 1953 some of the glitterati of the literati are the leading men of this novel. The big names here are Tennessee Williams and the malicious gossip Truman Capote (he makes only a few appearances). The other two leading men are Williams’ partner/assistant/nursemaid the good natured and reliable, Frank Merlo, and the lesser known author John Horne Burns. As he lay dying in 1963, Merlo revisits a tumultuous summer with Williams and his role as bit player standing in the massive shadow of the renowned playwright. It is during this summer that Williams and Merlo meet the soon-to-become iconic actress, Anja, who tells her portion of the tale as an old woman living in seclusion. The movement throughout the book from one narrator to the other is flawless although Merlo’s story is considerably more compelling. A blend of fact and fiction, Leading Men reflects upon art, fame, longing and loyalty set against the bewitching backdrop of 1950’s Italy. This is a genuinely poignant literary love story. Did you know that Williams’ years with Merlo were his most productive? I didn’t.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Doug

    "I kept waiting to feel something," Trevor says. "For the first few pages, I almost did, but then, as it went on and on, I just wanted the guy to shut up, and die already. The whole thing was so self-indulgent." p. 223 This had so much potential, that my low rating is more from a feeling of major disappointment than anything else. It is an utter failure on almost every level, with major boredom being the most egregious of its sins. It isn't well-written enough to qualify as literary fiction (as do "I kept waiting to feel something," Trevor says. "For the first few pages, I almost did, but then, as it went on and on, I just wanted the guy to shut up, and die already. The whole thing was so self-indulgent." p. 223 This had so much potential, that my low rating is more from a feeling of major disappointment than anything else. It is an utter failure on almost every level, with major boredom being the most egregious of its sins. It isn't well-written enough to qualify as literary fiction (as do the two recent novels about Capote and his 'swans'), nor is it trashy, gossipy fun. Although I can semi-see that the intention was to focus the attention on Merlo, Williams is so consistently missing in action through most of this, that one really gets no feel for the relationship itself, until the final chapter. For example, midway through there is a lengthy scene during Visconti's filming of Senso, that takes place with an entourage (including Anna Magnani) at a fish restaurant. I wasn't sure Williams was even THERE, until towards the end he finally utters two lines. Anyone who knows ANYTHING about the playwright knows he couldn't/WOULDN'T have been silent for so long. The other major annoyance is that Castellani shoehorns in tidbits from other lives, real and otherwise, that add nothing - the author John Horne Burns and HIS Italian lover, Sandro, make an appearance, primarily so that Sandro's son can become a character in the OTHER major storyline, about a fictional Swedish actress (apparently, from the author's endnote, inspired by Liv Ullman). There is a chapter detailing Burns' death that MIGHT have made an interesting short story, but just feels superfluous here. Castellani even manages to make Capote's infrequent cameos dull and lifeless, something I would have thought well-nigh impossible. The actress's storyline revolves around Williams' supposed last short play, written in tribute to Merlo and the only copy of which he mails to the woman just prior to his death, and which the actress attempts to stage in the penultimate chapter. Castellani includes the entire mess of a manuscript here (something he had written ten years earlier, according to the endnote) ... but it bears NONE of the hallmarks of Williams' later experimental work, as the author himself even admits! Mindboggling in its ineptitude. I find it hard to believe ANY of the authors who have provided glowing blurbs for the back cover even read the book, it is so far afield from my own experience. True story: 1973, San Francisco: as a 19 year-old undergraduate drama student, I scored a cheap balcony seat to Williams' umpteenth revision to what was then called 'The Two Character Play'. As the intermission was ending, I scurried up the stairs to my seat, only to see the great man himself descending the staircase coming towards me. I could tell he was obviously drunk and/or stoned, and as we passed, he stumbled and fell right into me. I grabbed and 'uprighted' him, and he leaned into me, kissed me on the cheek and whispered 'Sorry, baby'. THAT is a far more interesting and indicative story about the playwright than ANYTHING you will find in this book!

  3. 4 out of 5

    Marialyce (absltmom, yaya)

    This one held no appeal to me. I tried to get into it but gave up at the 20% point.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Philip

    My first perfect book of 2019. It's been awhile since I've read a book I just simply could not put down. Christopher Castellani weaves pure magic with Leading Men, historical fiction about the romantic relationship between playwright Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo. Their party also includes a fictitious actress named Anja Bloom, the author John Horne Burns, his lover Sandro, and in present day, Sandro's grandson and his boyfriend who inspire Anja to mount Williams' final one-act in Provincet My first perfect book of 2019. It's been awhile since I've read a book I just simply could not put down. Christopher Castellani weaves pure magic with Leading Men, historical fiction about the romantic relationship between playwright Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo. Their party also includes a fictitious actress named Anja Bloom, the author John Horne Burns, his lover Sandro, and in present day, Sandro's grandson and his boyfriend who inspire Anja to mount Williams' final one-act in Provincetown. I fell madly in love with Frank Merlo. Castellani gets inside his head trying to figure out what makes this working class man tick. It's Merlo's story we devour and crave in Leading Man. Captivating and beautiful. I can't stop thinking about it.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Bill Kupersmith

    What self-centred bores! Bailed out at 1/3 & still felt endless.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Crystal King

    Castellani's first three novels captivated me thoroughly but Leading Men took all my emotions and ratcheted them up a level. I can't stop thinking about this book. I fell in love with Frank Merlo and Anja Bloom, with Tennesee William's Italian jet-setting ways, with the backdrop of 1950s Italy, with all of it. The book is beautifully written, so much so that now that I have read it to feel wrapped up in the story, I intend to read it again for the craft of it. I want to understand how he turns t Castellani's first three novels captivated me thoroughly but Leading Men took all my emotions and ratcheted them up a level. I can't stop thinking about this book. I fell in love with Frank Merlo and Anja Bloom, with Tennesee William's Italian jet-setting ways, with the backdrop of 1950s Italy, with all of it. The book is beautifully written, so much so that now that I have read it to feel wrapped up in the story, I intend to read it again for the craft of it. I want to understand how he turns those gorgeous phrases, how he uses POV to unwrap the most delicate parts of the story, how he colors the world so the reader feels like they are a part of it. Bravo, Christopher Castellani, bravo.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Julie

    Upon finishing this novel, I felt full. A kind of full that I wouldn't have expected while reading the first half. It snuck up on me. I felt like I had been eating a ten course meal without realizing it. While there is much about this novel that is universal, the story stays squarely in its lane. At its heart, this novel is about how we forge relationships between lovers and parents and children and colleagues and friends. The novel alternates between the 1950s and decades in the future. My firs Upon finishing this novel, I felt full. A kind of full that I wouldn't have expected while reading the first half. It snuck up on me. I felt like I had been eating a ten course meal without realizing it. While there is much about this novel that is universal, the story stays squarely in its lane. At its heart, this novel is about how we forge relationships between lovers and parents and children and colleagues and friends. The novel alternates between the 1950s and decades in the future. My first impression was that it had the feel of a novel written in the 1950s. Kudos to the author for that. While it is fiction, it is based on real people. As with all biographies, there are things left unknown. Oftentimes fiction gets at the truth better than nonfiction. The novel starts off with plans to attend a party in Italy thrown by Truman Capote. The party guests we tag along with are real life playwright Tennessee Williams and his real life partner Frank Merlo. Italy! Iconic writers! I'm in! The second chapter jumped forward about 50 years to the life and memories of another of those party guests. As the reader moves back and forth between time periods, layers are added that might not be there otherwise. It felt like there were two protagonists, one in the 1950s (Frank) and another (Anja) in the decades that followed. Though the pulse that purrs throughout the novel belongs to Frank. The story is more about him than anyone else. Even when he's not there, he's there. I really liked the descriptions of Tennessee (or Tenn as he was called) working on his plays or "cathedrals." The author nails what it is like to live with a writer, being in close proximity yet never being with them fully, as the writer is somewhere else even when two feet away. Threaded throughout the novel are musings about gender, aging, sickness, death, love, being rescued, fame, and living more than one life (and whether the latter equates to freedom or just another chain). There is a lot of lamenting about getting older but the novel also reminds us that not everyone gets the chance. For much of the first half of the novel, I felt at arms length from the characters. One had the feeling that most of the inner dialog, as the outer dialog, was only what the character was willing to share. It felt like they were aware of the readers presence. I never felt like I looked any of the characters in the eye or through their eyes. Not until much later. The first vivid character was one that was not even there. Frank's memory of his mother with all her storms and contradictions was riveting. Her memory was baked into Frank's skin. So in that way I guess she was there. It helped me know Frank better. Though I guess that is true of everyone, to know how one feels about their parents and siblings tells a lot. When Frank talked about his mother it was more engaging than anywhere else up to that point. This is when the novel really kicked in for me. Up to this point I would say the novel had more brains than heart, not that it didn't have a heart, it was just more cerebral than heartfelt. The novel hits on once dubbed creative geniuses trying desperately to reclaim god-like stature. This is especially poignant when works don't measure up. For this, an author is either usually crucified or doesn't dare let the work be seen. We do have this idea that someone that has written great things in the past has an obligation to show us all their work. It does help shed light on an authors state of mind and their creative process, but not everything written by great writers is great. Much of what any writer puts down never makes it onto a published page. When we take something a writer didn't publish themselves and then publish it, it's unfair to weigh it equally against what they choose to publish during their lifetime. An author's body of work is part what a writer decided to let the world see and part what they didn't. There are exceptions, such as "A Moveable Feast." Hemingway was working on it and meant to publish. But even then, it's important to note that he didn't see the final edits before publication. But when reading Hemingway's swan song, it drips with his genius. And it's a memoir not a novel, so that does make it different. It would have been a different beast if it was a first draft novel. Not that that there isn't merit in reading every crumb Hemingway or Williams left behind, it's just important to know that works are more complicated than the words on the page. Much of the genius of literature is hidden within what is left out. The novel dips into something I have written about before. And that is the difference between being loved and being chosen. They are not the same thing. One can go their whole life without being chosen. I wrote a play about this subject that I will turn into a novel in the next few years. I wonder how many people feel they have never truly been loved or chosen, been seen as they truly are. How many think they have when they have not? Is it better to not know the truth or to know? As I continued on, the novel had more layers and touches of genius. I found myself about page 230 feeling this story was about more than the sum of its parts. It seemed bigger than time and place and character. I felt something reaching out from beyond, something buried beneath the page, that I didn't notice until later. I recommend everyone continue reading because the story really comes together later. It was poignant when muses were touched on. How sometimes it's the alchemy with someone else that is the magic sauce of creativity. It raised some interesting questions, such as: are we all screwed without our muses? I suspect I might be a muse that never choose anyone else but briefly. I quite frankly found it draining, it left me feeling empty. I prefer to be my own muse. It was equally poignant when one character felt she was living under a curse of having once been great and with the burden of the belief that greatness was still possible. Why do we do that? If any one of us creates magic at any time, it should be honored without expectation that more magic has to come. This is the reason we revere stars that die young. They go out in the prime of their magic, while we are still under their spell. And that's where we remain. Jimi Hendrix, Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain, and James Dean would not be what they remain if they had gotten older and moved out of their magic. It's not them we revere as much as the fact that they never moved out of their magic. They are frozen in time and that's something everyone wants, to stay forever in that time of their lives when they were most alive. But no one ever does, instead most people get tired and disappointed and bored. If Jimi and Marilyn had lived longer they would not be the mythical creatures they became. Look at Elvis, he's a legend but he died past the magical phase and so has some warts showing. JFK died tragically at the height of his power. Same with Jimi and Kurt. What we find out later subtracts less if they died at the height of their magical powers. The novel touches on the difference between those that hide and those that keep working even when their muse is gone. Williams showed up until the end, always trying to revive the ghost. He was brave in a way that most aren't. He had such a long way to fall with a lot of people watching close. He had risen to such great heights and he wanted to go back there. It's akin to gambling, where you keep hoping the next one will be the winning hand. It's better to be authentic and unread than always trying to be beautiful for someone else. Perhaps if Williams had let go of the need to be seen as great he might have written something great again before he died. By the time I got to the last chapter, my heart sank. It's not like I didn't know it was coming but when it did, by the time I got there, it felt more sad, it had more weight. There are two moments, of something that isn't said and something that is said, that just got to me. It made me ache. I didn't expect to feel so much. After the last chapter, the author tells the reader about how he came to know about Williams long time lover Frank Merlo and how he came to write this fictional novel. He illuminates many things including how we all live in the shadow of someone. Frank lived in Tennessee's shadow but so did Tennessee in Frank's shadow after Frank's death. The author also hit on how struggling with fame can mirror the struggle of anonymity when one wants to be famous. They are like different sides of the same coin. The author said he used what was known and imagined the rest. He was inspired by Oscar Wilde and what he said about killing the thing we love.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Janet

    If I was a writer I would write historical fiction….I’m not saying it’s easy but the raw material is already there for you. You research the heck out of something (or someone) that already interests you, then let your imagination run wild, then go back and meticulously check all the available facts to make sure what you’ve written COULD have happened. What could be more fun? By all accounts Tennessee Williams was a larger than life person and as the author has pointed out in interviews, already w If I was a writer I would write historical fiction….I’m not saying it’s easy but the raw material is already there for you. You research the heck out of something (or someone) that already interests you, then let your imagination run wild, then go back and meticulously check all the available facts to make sure what you’ve written COULD have happened. What could be more fun? By all accounts Tennessee Williams was a larger than life person and as the author has pointed out in interviews, already written about ad nauseam. But how interesting to learn that virtually ALL of his acclaimed work was done when he was in a 15 year relationship with a man named Frank Merlo. So Castellani turns that biography on it’s head and makes his story about Frank. What is it like to be the muse of the greatest playwright of the 20th century? Unsurprisingly Merlo never had much of a career of his own. So little is known about the man that Castellani must have had a difficult time making him interesting, therefore he threw in an entirely fictional woman, girl actually (Anya) based on a real life young woman who was sleeping with the same Italian laborer as her mother. (Anya had him first). Those are the kinds of juicy tidbits that keep you turning the pages. Castellani puts in another character than makes us sit up and take notice, the endlessly fascinating Truman Capote who was a contemporary of Tennessee Williams. I never tire of reading about Truman and his flair for the dramatic. I think Castellani misses an opportunity to make his novel more interesting by doing more with the characters of Capote and Anya. By all accounts Frank Merlo was kind and caring whereas Williams was more than a bit of a heel. Williams was generous with money but emotionally absent and physically absent when Merlo needed him most, when he was dying of lung cancer at a very young age. This was pre-AIDS epidemic but one has to wonder if his cancer was AIDS related. In conclusion, while I enjoyed this novel thoroughly, it was not without problems, particularly in the last 3rd of the book. It dragged a bit and could have been helped by some more page turning gossip. Capote was just sitting there waiting to be tapped and Anya was crafted to be too much of an old soul when she could have given more life to the novel.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Carlos Mock

    Leading Men by Christopher Castellani This a very dull attempt to make something of the relationship between Frank Merlo and his lover Tennesse Williams that lasted from 1947 to Merlo's death in 1963. The book opens in July of 1953 when Truman Capote throws a party in Portofino, Italy. There, the mother/daughter duo Bitte/Anja Blongren become part of the story. On the writer's note at the end of the book, the author states: "Ironically, it was only after the entirely fictional Anja entered the na Leading Men by Christopher Castellani This a very dull attempt to make something of the relationship between Frank Merlo and his lover Tennesse Williams that lasted from 1947 to Merlo's death in 1963. The book opens in July of 1953 when Truman Capote throws a party in Portofino, Italy. There, the mother/daughter duo Bitte/Anja Blongren become part of the story. On the writer's note at the end of the book, the author states: "Ironically, it was only after the entirely fictional Anja entered the narrative that the plot began to take shape..." However, it does not. The plot is a mess. There are at least four timelines: 1953, 1963--Frank's death, 1983, and the present. Chapters run back and forth without any rhyme or reason. The narration is a somewhat third person point of view which leaves the reader without a voice to concentrate on. The plot is very boring-- it's as if nothing happens at all. The characters themselves are one dimensional--I never cared for any of them. Once again, I was swayed by the New York Times to buy a book. Once again, I was very disappointed with their recommendation. I strongly recommend you stay away from this book--for that matter stay away from anything the New York Times recommends!

  10. 4 out of 5

    Whitney Scharer

    Italy, a booze-soaked party thrown by Truman Capote, a mysterious Swedish film star, and the gorgeous love story between Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo--what's not to adore about this novel? From the first page, I was swept into the rich and mesmerizing world of Castellani's LEADING MEN, and enjoyed it right up to its incredibly moving and satisfying ending. This ambitious novel has a rich cast of characters and whisks you from 1950s Italy in the 1950s to Manhattan in the 1960s to the theate Italy, a booze-soaked party thrown by Truman Capote, a mysterious Swedish film star, and the gorgeous love story between Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo--what's not to adore about this novel? From the first page, I was swept into the rich and mesmerizing world of Castellani's LEADING MEN, and enjoyed it right up to its incredibly moving and satisfying ending. This ambitious novel has a rich cast of characters and whisks you from 1950s Italy in the 1950s to Manhattan in the 1960s to the theater world in Provincetown, Massachusetts, all while exploring themes of love, fidelity, and the challenges of forging one's own identity while in a partnership with a creative genius. I loved it!

  11. 5 out of 5

    Ricky Schneider

    A fictionalization of the true love story between Tennessee Williams and the love of his life, Frank Merlo, Leading Men is steeped in Old Hollywood glamor and Mediterranean landscapes. Castellani imbues this sprawling narrative with romantic coastlines and glittering parties while mining the unknown intimacy of these two real life lovers to evince a specific yet inscrutable kind of love that does not adhere to the traditional boundaries or setup of a romance in any way. Theirs was a complex and A fictionalization of the true love story between Tennessee Williams and the love of his life, Frank Merlo, Leading Men is steeped in Old Hollywood glamor and Mediterranean landscapes. Castellani imbues this sprawling narrative with romantic coastlines and glittering parties while mining the unknown intimacy of these two real life lovers to evince a specific yet inscrutable kind of love that does not adhere to the traditional boundaries or setup of a romance in any way. Theirs was a complex and amorphous connection that ebbed and flowed like the tides on the Italian beaches that served as the stage for their story. There is an expansive cast at play in this novel that sometimes clouds the clarity of the narrative but the real meat of the story lies with the famous playwright and his great gay lover. Some of the supporting players even have strikingly similar names (e.g. Anja and Anna) and they aren't always distinctive or memorable enough to stand out in the company of Truman Capote and the like. Still, the characters that truly matter make themselves clear to the reader and their lifelong friendships and relationships feel genuine and tender. Castellani writes with luxurious detail and rich atmosphere without ever becoming indulgent. His words are never overly flowery but still evocative and beautiful. He even utilizes what has to be the best euphemism for sex that I have ever read. Many an author has tried to create a graceful or romantic metaphor for the act and fallen failingly into the pitfalls of corny or cringey comparisons. In Leading Men, Tenn and Frank refer to moments of lovemaking as "when the nightingales sing". This fitting phrase is echoed throughout the story with endearing effect and it's indicative of Castellani's gift for simple but gorgeous prose. The journey may be fraught with confusing time jumps and an overabundance of side stories but the heart of the novel is so winsome and nuanced that it shines through in the end. The novel even appropriately includes a section written in the form of a play and the author's genuine admiration and affection for the two men at the center of the story is palpable. This novel is a must for any fans of Tennessee Williams and especially for those who are as fascinated and interested in his legendary romance with the mysterious Frank Merlo as I am.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Kyra Leseberg (Roots & Reads)

    "They say artists crave immortality. I say we don't give a fuck about the next life. It's this one we want more of." * In the summer of 1953, American writer Tennessee Williams and his lover Frank Merlo attend a wild party in Italy hosted by Truman Capote.  It's there that they meet the beautiful aspiring actress Anja Blomgren and their lives change forever. Tenn and Frank travel Italy with Anja and her mother, as well as writer Jack Horne and his lover Sandro.  After hiking to a remote cliff, the "They say artists crave immortality. I say we don't give a fuck about the next life. It's this one we want more of." * In the summer of 1953, American writer Tennessee Williams and his lover Frank Merlo attend a wild party in Italy hosted by Truman Capote.  It's there that they meet the beautiful aspiring actress Anja Blomgren and their lives change forever. Tenn and Frank travel Italy with Anja and her mother, as well as writer Jack Horne and his lover Sandro.  After hiking to a remote cliff, they find themselves surrounded by a group of boys and a fight breaks out as the group attacks Anja and her mother.  "Anja interpreted Suddenly Last Summer as Tenn's revenge on her for going beyond him in fame, as her punishment for not following behind him begging for scraps like an American actress." * Though haunted by the act of violence on the cliff, Anja goes on to become a celebrated actress thanks to the help of Tenn and Frank that summer in Italy. She loved Frank and kept in touch with him through his long illness while Tenn distanced himself from Frank as his condition grew worse.  Tenn paid for Frank's radiation and care but could not bring himself to sit by his side as he died. In the present day, Anja has become a recluse in the U.S.  A young man unexpectedly contacts her and she discovers he's connected to the events of that fateful summer in Italy. When the young man learns that Anja possesses the sole copy of the final play ever written by Tennnessee Williams, he begs her to step back in the spotlight one final time to share it with the world. The problem is that the play is personal; it shares a part of Tenn that he never shared with anyone and it holds a great deal of hurt for Anja who never forgave Tenn for abandoning Frank when he needed him most. Leading Men does a fantastic job of seamlessly alternating narrators and time periods while weaving fact and fiction to detail a very complicated literary love story. The writing was absolutely phenomenal---I wanted to highlight so many of the lovely and compelling passages!  Unfortunately I never connected with any of the characters.  While they are described in great detail there was something that prevented me from finding dimension to the characters and because of that I wasn't invested in the story itself. Thanks to Viking and Edelweiss for providing me with a DRC in exchange for an honest review.  Leading Men is scheduled for release on February 12, 2019. *Quotes included are from an advance readers copy and are subject to change upon final publication. For more reviews, visit www.rootsandreads.wordpress.com

  13. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    I finished this exquisite novel yesterday and can't stop thinking about it. Christopher Castellani expertly balances three main time periods : the wine-soaked days Tennessee Williams and his partner Frank Merlo spent in Italy in the 1950s with a cast of characters both fictional (the actress Anja Bloom) and real (Truman Capote); Merlo's last days in the early 1960s; and the present day, where an elderly Anja is forced to confront the past. The writing itself is dazzling, the stories in all time I finished this exquisite novel yesterday and can't stop thinking about it. Christopher Castellani expertly balances three main time periods : the wine-soaked days Tennessee Williams and his partner Frank Merlo spent in Italy in the 1950s with a cast of characters both fictional (the actress Anja Bloom) and real (Truman Capote); Merlo's last days in the early 1960s; and the present day, where an elderly Anja is forced to confront the past. The writing itself is dazzling, the stories in all time frames compelling. But it's the portrait of Merlo that touched me the most. Always in Tennessee's shadow in life, Castellani has elevated him, with this novel, to the role of leading man.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jaclyn

    I haven’t been so riveted and so bored by the same book ever before. I loved all the 1950s Italy sections surrounded by Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote but it meant that all other sections felt lacklustre. I loved the characterisation of Frank Merlo and really only wanted his thread of this story – the overlooked outsider looking in to a glamorous literary world is always the perspective I will be drawn to.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Leah DeCesare

    A gorgeous story taking Tennessee Williams love, Frank Merlo, from the shadows and backstage right into the spotlight, making him--at last--the leading man. Beautifully written!

  16. 5 out of 5

    Karen Foster

    Such beautiful writing that captures this group of friends and lovers, artists and hangers-on, in mid 20th century Italy. The setting and story lends itself to some gorgeous prose. I loved the portrayal of Frank, Tennessee Williams’s long term companion and those larger-than-life artists that circled his world, a romantic story that is both sad and poetic. The addition of some imagined characters and events didn’t bother me as it has some.... this is fiction after all. This book gave me Paula Mc Such beautiful writing that captures this group of friends and lovers, artists and hangers-on, in mid 20th century Italy. The setting and story lends itself to some gorgeous prose. I loved the portrayal of Frank, Tennessee Williams’s long term companion and those larger-than-life artists that circled his world, a romantic story that is both sad and poetic. The addition of some imagined characters and events didn’t bother me as it has some.... this is fiction after all. This book gave me Paula McLain vibes in a really good way, specifically of her two Hemingway novels.... Really enjoyed this... 💕

  17. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

    4.5. How I wish Goodreads allowed .5's. This is one of those rare books where I actually slowed down while reading to stay with the characters longer. All of them are so lovingly rendered, realistically and some times painfully, Frank broke my heart. The story told is the relationship between Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo, with sections that move back and forth between their time spent in Italy and abroad in the 1950's while Williams was writing some of his best plays, and current times in 4.5. How I wish Goodreads allowed .5's. This is one of those rare books where I actually slowed down while reading to stay with the characters longer. All of them are so lovingly rendered, realistically and some times painfully, Frank broke my heart. The story told is the relationship between Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo, with sections that move back and forth between their time spent in Italy and abroad in the 1950's while Williams was writing some of his best plays, and current times in which their friend, Anja, struggles with the task of honoring her friends memory. This book has that page turning magic that walks the fine line between historical staging and gossip, which allows the reader to engage with the book on a very personal level - at times feeling like you are one of the gang yourself. It is also a departure from Castellani's family based stories but the care and empathy that Castellani brings to all his characters is on full display. By far his best work............ This is a book about Love, Craft, Muses, Societal Norms and Beautiful Landscapes. As a bookseller I can't wait to put this in one in readers hands.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Erik

    With closing lines that will leave you weeping and reflective, Christopher Castellani's inspired work of alternative historical fiction, "Leading Men," reveals the lives and loves of Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo. Beginning in a sweeping party in Italy, hosted by Truman Capote and attended by Williams, Merlo, and other literary and cultural heavyweights, "Leading Men" brightly and uniquely tells the story of Tennessee Williams, a man who loved Frank Merlo, but who couldn't figure out how to With closing lines that will leave you weeping and reflective, Christopher Castellani's inspired work of alternative historical fiction, "Leading Men," reveals the lives and loves of Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo. Beginning in a sweeping party in Italy, hosted by Truman Capote and attended by Williams, Merlo, and other literary and cultural heavyweights, "Leading Men" brightly and uniquely tells the story of Tennessee Williams, a man who loved Frank Merlo, but who couldn't figure out how to escape his own world to let him in, and Frank, a man who, though he lived an enviable life, never quite figured out his own story, always playing a supporting role to Tennessee. Castellani's prose delivers emotional blows at the end of every chapter; this man can write a concluding line (though his chapter entrances, opposite this effect, can tend to ramble.) A slow-burning book that you won't get through quickly, "Leading Men" will nonetheless leave its impact on you, asking you to consider if you are who you truly want to be or if instead you’re too busy being for someone else.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Caleb

    This book was so difficult to get through. Not because the writing was bad or the story was boring. Instead, it was that the reader is shown the ending right from the start, in all its bleak glory. Additionally, the chapters go between the present and the past, telling a story that happens in essentially three times. Thus, I ended up reading this chapter-by-chapter, almost like a short story collection. Almost every chapter left me with so much on which to ruminate that I would set the whole nov This book was so difficult to get through. Not because the writing was bad or the story was boring. Instead, it was that the reader is shown the ending right from the start, in all its bleak glory. Additionally, the chapters go between the present and the past, telling a story that happens in essentially three times. Thus, I ended up reading this chapter-by-chapter, almost like a short story collection. Almost every chapter left me with so much on which to ruminate that I would set the whole novel aside, wanting to savor the author's reimaginings of these historical people for as long as possible. This book is full of longing. Longing for love and family and fulfillment and completion. In the end, it's truly a love letter to Frank Merlo: someone who both desired and feared to be a leading man in this world. Though slow in places, I overall adored this book. And, as always, any book that can make me cry gets bumped into the five-star strata. A great book that I will certainly return to in due time.

  20. 5 out of 5

    LenaRibka

    DNF I hate to admit it, but I decided to give up. Yes, I'm over 50% and I'm still struggling with this book. Hadn't it been amazing Edoardo Ballerini who did actually a great job as narrator, I would have given up earlier, but even his flawless narrating couldn't make this book better (for me). The author too did a great job, considering the research for this book, and I appreciate the decision to devote his novel to a heartbreaking story about the burdens of fame and the complex negotiations of DNF I hate to admit it, but I decided to give up. Yes, I'm over 50% and I'm still struggling with this book. Hadn't it been amazing Edoardo Ballerini who did actually a great job as narrator, I would have given up earlier, but even his flawless narrating couldn't make this book better (for me). The author too did a great job, considering the research for this book, and I appreciate the decision to devote his novel to a heartbreaking story about the burdens of fame and the complex negotiations of life in the shadows of greatness. I understand that greatness and literary genius not automatically means being a good human being, and maybe these people were holding boring talks and were just boring persons, but couldn't it be told more interesting? Not THAT boring? It could have been such a great story about Tennessee Williams and his longtime lover Frank Merlo!..I enjoyed the parts with Frank's narrative, his character was the best. But there were so many really dull parts (especially the parts with Anja Bloom - sorry - and there were just much too much of her). It is a pity that so much potential went lost. This book is good written, so if you like literary fiction and want to learn something new about Merlo, give it a try. Maybe you will belong to those readers who couldn't put it down. Good luck.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Dennis Holland

    There are lots of wonderful things to remember about this alternative history queer romance but, surprisingly, it might be the evil gypsies I remember most. Omgoodness I will never think of gypsies the same again. This book was marvelous.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jill Meyer

    American author Christopher Castellani has written an almost epic novel about male authors and the men who loved them. The book, "Leading Men", features real people - Tennessee Williams, Frank Merlo, Truman Capote, Jack Burns, among others - while adding to them a cast of fictional characters. (It's handy to read this book on an Ipad or other devise which makes it easy to refer to Wiki when you have a question about a character in the book.) The book is perhaps a little too long, but the relatio American author Christopher Castellani has written an almost epic novel about male authors and the men who loved them. The book, "Leading Men", features real people - Tennessee Williams, Frank Merlo, Truman Capote, Jack Burns, among others - while adding to them a cast of fictional characters. (It's handy to read this book on an Ipad or other devise which makes it easy to refer to Wiki when you have a question about a character in the book.) The book is perhaps a little too long, but the relationships between the characters need a fair amount of space to develop. Castellani has invented characters as he is writing a fictionalised version of real events. Not an easy concept to either write or read, it's the only way he can tell his story. The book takes place in the 1940's to the 1960's Tennessee Williams and his lover/aide Frank Merlo live the good life in Italy. Williams is writing during the day, while Merlo keeps Williams' life and household in running order. The two men are not necessarily faithful to each other and they do fight a fair amount, but the reader can easily discern the love between them. Their friends (and rivals) Truman Capote and Jack Burns - both with their own lovers - come in and out of the story. And added to the story as fictional characters are a Swedish mother-and-daughter, Bitte and Anya Blomgren - who meet up with Williams and Merlo in Portofino and are sort of added to their lives. Anya is based on Liv Ullmann, the Norwegian actress and director. Frank Merlo and Anya become life-long friends. But Frank Merlo, who I think is the main character in the book, does not have a long life-time. He dies of lung cancer in a New York hospital in 1963, after his relationship with "Tenn" has withered. Tennessee Williams knows and acknowledges his creative juices flourished during his 20 or so years with Frank Merlo. Still friends with Anya - who has go on to become a highly regarded actress - he writes a short play about Frank he gives to Anya. What Anya does with this not-particularly-well-written play is explored near the end of the book. Christopher Castellano's book is character-driven. A bit of a plot but what's there mainly exists to service the characters. The Frank Merlo character is a particularly well-drawn, nuanced look at a man who is comfortable with his sexuality but is uncertain about his place in his world. He may book airline tickets to Spain for Williams, but he has not-so-secret desires to become an actor/singer/dancer and find success in his own right. Castellani's book is a wonderful read, though not for every reader. Make sure you read all the reviews you can before you buy the book or take it out of the library. As always with well-written fiction, I'm left with the urge to find out as much as I can about the "real people" and their stories.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Bandit

    Traditionally I enjoy historical fiction and ones revolving around real life characters are all the more interesting and yet…this one was a drag, no pun intended, despite the fact that a drag queen saves the day toward the end of the book. I tried and tried. Something about the gay romantic lives of famous authors just didn’t do it for me. I don’t think it was the setting, post WWII Italy and present day NYC and Provincetown are great literary destinations. So it has to be down to the characters Traditionally I enjoy historical fiction and ones revolving around real life characters are all the more interesting and yet…this one was a drag, no pun intended, despite the fact that a drag queen saves the day toward the end of the book. I tried and tried. Something about the gay romantic lives of famous authors just didn’t do it for me. I don’t think it was the setting, post WWII Italy and present day NYC and Provincetown are great literary destinations. So it has to be down to the characters. And the limelight of that show belongs to Tenn and Frank, the famous author and playwright and his lover of 15 years. You get to follow their tumultuous on and off affair through the years, continents and other men. Because, yeah, they slept around like crazy, sometimes competitively. Yet they went on, the melodramatic Tennessee and the optimistic Frank. The latter is obviously meant to be the likeable one here, but overall their great love affair just didn’t work for me. Or for them, for that matter. Although their years together were the most productive of Tennessee’s life. It fact it didn’t even seem like a great love affair it was meant to be, more like a severely dysfunctional relationship. Unless relationships between two men have different standards. The entire thing actually…the languorous decadence of the literati’s lifestyles, just didn’t sing for me. Everyone came off superficial and tedious. Except for maybe Anja Bloom, the glue that holds the story and the main couple together in a way. Ms. Bloom is a fictionalized version of Liv Ullmann, her perspective carries the novel into present day, where she is very old and very wealthy and decides to put on a play to commemorate Frank and Tenn. And yes, the novel does feature a complete (and completely fabricated) unknown Tennessee’s play. And yes, it’s no fun, neither the play nor the fact that it’s stuck in there. But Anja Bloom has layers, she’s fascinating and possibly the most developed character in the book. Which is ironic or at least very strange…that the fictional(ish) person should be more interesting, likeable and compelling that the real ones. So that’s the book. I really tried to like it, but mostly managed a sort of academic appreciation. It’s well written, proper literature and all that, but so very slow and difficult to care about. It’s possible I’m just not the right audience for it. Christopher Castellani as an author himself and a gay man has obviously found the story much more relatable as the afterword leads us to believe and so this book was a labor of love for him. And Tennessee fans would probably find this interesting also. It is, after all a good story, but for me an article or a short form (novella at most) would have sufficed. Thanks Netgalley.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

    Book Club: Caellum's selection This book had a great premise but I found it lacking depth as well as lacking in emotive language which challenged my connection. I was more enveloped in the present day storyline than I was in the narrative of Portofino 1953 and didn't gel with the characters like I feel I should have. I found that they lacked a certain substance which irritated me. I feel proud that I managed to finish this book in all honesty. Book Club: Caellum's selection This book had a great premise but I found it lacking depth as well as lacking in emotive language which challenged my connection. I was more enveloped in the present day storyline than I was in the narrative of Portofino 1953 and didn't gel with the characters like I feel I should have. I found that they lacked a certain substance which irritated me. I feel proud that I managed to finish this book in all honesty.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Robert Barto

    I thought the novel would be more interesting because it was about Tennessee Williams and his partner, Frank Merlo. Too much of the novel concentrated on a fictitious actress, based on Liv Ullmann, and there was very little about Williams' plays and I found the book boring in certain parts and not really one of those novels that I could not put down. I thought the novel would be more interesting because it was about Tennessee Williams and his partner, Frank Merlo. Too much of the novel concentrated on a fictitious actress, based on Liv Ullmann, and there was very little about Williams' plays and I found the book boring in certain parts and not really one of those novels that I could not put down.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Cazlam

    Exquisitely written but dull at times.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Ryan

    LEADING MEN opens at a party thrown by Truman Capote in Portofino, Italy. In attendance are other literary stars of 1953, Tennessee Williams with his lover, Frank Merlo, and John Horne Burns with his lover, Sandro Necini. They meet a mother and daughter from Sweden, the girl hoping to be a star. The novel jumps back and forth between 1950s Italy and present day America, where the young starlet, Anja, now older, meets Sandro’s son. While this book appealed greatly to me in subject matter, the exec LEADING MEN opens at a party thrown by Truman Capote in Portofino, Italy. In attendance are other literary stars of 1953, Tennessee Williams with his lover, Frank Merlo, and John Horne Burns with his lover, Sandro Necini. They meet a mother and daughter from Sweden, the girl hoping to be a star. The novel jumps back and forth between 1950s Italy and present day America, where the young starlet, Anja, now older, meets Sandro’s son. While this book appealed greatly to me in subject matter, the execution of the story made this a challenging read. The jumps back and forth in time were abrupt and the location and year was not clear. Sometimes the novel would jump back and forth in a chapter leaving me confused. The book contains several excellent scenes but I didn’t get a strong theme or thread pulling the book together through the different time periods. For all of the words, we didn’t get to know the characters very well. I appreciate the author’s research into these lives, but I wanted a stronger emotional connection with their stories. While some characters like Williams and Capote are established in popular culture and through their own writings, the fictional characters, like Anja, needed more development. We never get a sense of who Anja really is beyond her relationship to Frank and Tenn. This book is competent but I almost didn’t finish reading because the novel felt overwritten. The stagnating plot and the emotional disconnect from Anja made this a frustrating read. If you’re very interested in the lives of these men, you’ve probably already read this. If not, I recommend you skip it.▪️

  28. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

    A stunning meditation on love, fame and art. Castellani asks, 'Do we not play our parts every minute of every day, even when we are alone?' By toggling between memory, letters and the stage he digs into the indispensable question of how we define the past and future - and even ourselves. He left me reeling and I loved it. Read this book. A stunning meditation on love, fame and art. Castellani asks, 'Do we not play our parts every minute of every day, even when we are alone?' By toggling between memory, letters and the stage he digs into the indispensable question of how we define the past and future - and even ourselves. He left me reeling and I loved it. Read this book.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Brett Benner

    While I appreciate Castellani's exhaustive research he did for the book, my biggest issue was I just got bored at times. Surrounded by what are thought of as larger than life literary characters- Williams and Capote- I still found myself pushing to finish, which is a shame because ultimately I found I enjoyed it, it just didn't have the resonance I expected it to. While I appreciate Castellani's exhaustive research he did for the book, my biggest issue was I just got bored at times. Surrounded by what are thought of as larger than life literary characters- Williams and Capote- I still found myself pushing to finish, which is a shame because ultimately I found I enjoyed it, it just didn't have the resonance I expected it to.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Gregory

    I have no words to describe this book, other than to say that this may well be one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. The last time I remember crying last that at the end of a book was upon finishing Hanya Yanagihara's Little Life. My favorite book of 2019 so far. I have no words to describe this book, other than to say that this may well be one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. The last time I remember crying last that at the end of a book was upon finishing Hanya Yanagihara's Little Life. My favorite book of 2019 so far.

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