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Leading Men

3.53  ·  Rating details ·  1,671 ratings  ·  321 reviews
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
Hardcover, 368 pages
Published February 12th 2019 by Viking
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Average rating 3.53  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,671 ratings  ·  321 reviews

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Oct 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Mar 08, 2019 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
"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
Marialyce (absltmom, yaya)
This one held no appeal to me. I tried to get into it but gave up at the 20% point.
Mar 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Bill Kupersmith
Mar 01, 2019 added it
Shelves: dnf
What self-centred bores! Bailed out at 1/3 & still felt endless.
Crystal King
Nov 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
May 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
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
Apr 05, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: booktopia-2019
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
Carlos Mock
Feb 27, 2019 rated it did not like it
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
Whitney Scharer
Sep 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Ricky Schneider
Mar 06, 2022 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Kyra Leseberg (Roots & Reads)
Jan 13, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: arc
"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
Jan 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Jul 31, 2019 rated it liked it
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.
Leah DeCesare
Feb 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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!
Karen Foster
Feb 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Dec 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Mar 14, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: lgbt
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
Aug 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: lgbtq, fiction
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 ...more


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
Dennis Holland
Feb 10, 2022 rated it really liked it
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.
Jill Meyer
Feb 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Dec 08, 2018 rated it liked it
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 ...more
Apr 05, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: book-club
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.
Robert Barto
Mar 06, 2019 rated it it was ok
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. ...more
Apr 05, 2019 rated it liked it
Exquisitely written but dull at times.
Aug 23, 2021 rated it liked it
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
Oct 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
Brett Benner
May 17, 2019 rated it liked it
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. ...more
Feb 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
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Mt. Lebanon Publi...: Leading Men by Christopher Castellani 1 3 Jun 10, 2019 01:49PM  

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Christopher Castellani is the son of Italian immigrants and a native of Wilmington, Delaware. He is the author of four novels, including All This Talk of Love (2013) -- a New York Times Editors' Choice -- A Kiss from Maddalena (2003)--winner of the Massachusetts Book Award -- and The Saint of Lost Things (2005), a BookSense (IndieBound) Notable Book. His book of essays on the craft of fiction, The ...more

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