A lyrical gay coming-of-age story first published in 1951, acclaimed by many including Gore Vidal and The New York Times, about Matthew, a young American who moves to France with his mother following his parents’ divorce. In boarding school and on trips with his mother into the countryside, Matthew investigates his budding sexuality and complicated new relationships with trepidation and hardship until he is forced to confront finistère – land’s end – where the brutal truths of the world can be found.
Review by Hayden Thorne
Though the novel was published in the 1950s, the story takes place in the late 1920s. As a historical novel that’s also a coming-of-age story, it’s very much the classic problem novel of which we see a lot being published as Young Adult fiction. What we have in modern sophistication and cynicism becomes postwar America’s confining views about homosexuality, and that said, it comes as no surprise that Peters’s novel is a tragedy – the kind of pre-Stonewall fiction that some readers criticize or dismiss as self-hating and/or trashy.
On the whole, Finistère is both easy and difficult to read, the reasons lying largely in Peters’s narrative style. Given the delicacy of the subject – fifteen-year-old Matthew’s process of self-discovery, which involves a man who’s twice his age – Peters tackles it with a certain elegance and grace that adds color to the frank sensuality of Matthew’s relationship with Michel. The sex scenes are suggestive, not explicit, and even the slightest gesture, touch, or even kiss is beautifully erotic.
The characters’ complexities, particularly those facets of their natures that are shaped by their pasts, are subtly and skillfully drawn. The effects vary, of course, depending on the character and how Peters is able to develop him or her. Some minor characters – such as Edith, Matthew’s stepmother – are on the scene for a very limited span of time and yet are able to convey so much about themselves through mannerisms, dialogue, casual gestures, and simple interactions with others. There are those – such as Paul – who are there from start to finish and yet come across as unsatisfying and flat. In Paul’s case, Peters does try to say as much as he can about the man’s character, but in the end, it’s simply not enough. Paul, in fact, though adding texture and color to Peters’s impressive cast of characters, remains a problem for me. He’s simply too villainous, and while there’s an effort in the end to give him a more multi-dimensional quality, it’s simply too late in the story for him to rouse sympathy in me. To some extent, Peters’s efforts in developing him in the final chapters feel almost forced.
The greatest weakness in the book, I think, lies in Peters’s use of the third person omniscient POV. While readers are treated to close and in-depth looks at each character, the heavy dependence on so much telling, not as much showing, can take its toll. The book relies a lot on introspection and exposition, and being in a character’s head can last a few pages at a stretch. It’s during those moments when I feel myself slow down quite a bit in my reading. Despite the interest these scenes raise in me regarding a given character, they can be relentless and even repetitive. There are, in fact, scenes in which Michel ruminates about the same things that Matthew does in other scenes. There are also times in which situations that are shown in a previous chapter resurface in another, but this time it does so in the form of exposition, with the reader rehashing the same issue in, say, Scott’s head.
On the other hand, this omniscient POV also works to give the characters – pretty much all of them – varying degrees of complexity, which really adds to the dramatic texture of the plot. Most of them undergo a process of transformation, and some end up being revelations. It’s an effective approach to take in telling Matthew’s story, especially when one considers that Matthew, at fifteen, is the only youngster through most of the book. His innocence comes under fire from his environment, which is peopled with bitter, loving, pragmatic, misguided, selfish adults. The boy is alone through his ordeal, and the sympathy he rouses in his readers is sharp and strong. It’s quite easy to see Michael Bronski’s point in the book’s introduction when he says that Matthew, in his youth and innocence, becomes a metaphorical symbol of “the naturalness and the ingenuousness of homosexual desire.”
Michael Bronski’s lengthy introduction is a gem in itself, for it provides readers a fascinating mini-study of postwar gay fiction and, therefore, a historical context for the conception of Finistère and its successful reception. His discussion of post-Stonewall attitudes toward pre-Stonewall gay fiction is also significant, given the fact that most postwar gay novels are tragedies, conveying pessimistic views of homosexuality against the backdrop of past mores.
“While it is understandable that gay readers of the 1970s would reject these earlier novels in favor of a new wealth of literature that was being published by both mainstream and alternative publishing houses post-Stonewall, the rejection incurred emotional costs as well. Not admitting these novels into a growing canon of gay and lesbian literature meant that the gay reader of the 1970s did not allow himself access to the world view – and more importantly, the emotions and the psychological mind-set of homosexuals who had come before him…These new gay cultural norms were so set that they did not allow gay liberationists to take the time to understand the people or the cultures of the recent past. This lack of cultural empathy created a generational divide that was difficult for people on both sides.”
Well said, and that can certainly be applied to new generations of readers as well.