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The Charioteer

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After enduring an injury at Dunkirk during World War II, Laurie Odell is sent to a rural veterans’ hospital in England to convalesce. There he befriends the young, bright Andrew, a conscientious objector serving as an orderly. As they find solace and companionship together in the idyllic surroundings of the hospital, their friendship blooms into a discreet, chaste romance. Then one day, Ralph Lanyon, a mentor from Laurie’s schoolboy days, suddenly reappears in Laurie’s life, and draws him into a tight-knit social circle of world-weary gay men. Laurie is forced to choose between the sweet ideals of innocence and the distinct pleasures of experience.

Originally published in the United States in 1959, The Charioteer is a bold, unapologetic portrayal of male homosexuality during World War II that stands with Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar and Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories as a monumental work in gay literature.

347 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1953

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About the author

Mary Renault

26 books1,322 followers
Mary Renault was an English writer best known for her historical novels set in Ancient Greece. In addition to vivid fictional portrayals of Theseus, Socrates, Plato and Alexander the Great, she wrote a non-fiction biography of Alexander.

Her historical novels are all set in ancient Greece. They include a pair of novels about the mythological hero Theseus and a trilogy about the career of Alexander the Great. In a sense, The Charioteer (1953), the story of two young gay servicemen in the 1940s who try to model their relationship on the ideals expressed in Plato's Phaedrus and Symposium, is a warm-up for Renault's historical novels. By turning away from the 20th century and focusing on stories about male lovers in the warrior societies of ancient Greece, Renault no longer had to deal with homosexuality and anti-gay prejudice as social "problems". Instead she was free to focus on larger ethical and philosophical concerns, while examining the nature of love and leadership. The Charioteer could not be published in the U.S. until 1959, after the success of The Last of the Wine proved that American readers and critics would accept a serious gay love story.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 577 reviews
Profile Image for Jessica.
593 reviews3,387 followers
November 27, 2009
My least favorite thing about this book reporting business is choosing the star rating. I seriously get ulcers trying to quantify my personal, subjective response to each book I've read. Was it just "okay"? Did I "like it" or "really like it"? Part of my problem is that I've resolved from the beginning to be incredibly stingy with my five-star ratings. I've only given five stars to books that I feel have affected my sense of self and relation to the world on some profound and fundamental level, which has created the problem that my four-star category now is the broadest and least meaningful. My rule in distinguishing between a three-star and four-star book is how urgently I feel the need to return to reading it while I am not. Anything I actively crave earns the fourth star: four-star books make me look forward to subway rides, cause me to resent social obligations.... But The Charioteer made me rethink my commitment to the four star system. This was a book that I flung down at midnight on a Tuesday, beating my breast, cursing my fate, and crying out to the gods, "Why must I work?" because it broke my heart that I couldn't stay up all night long finishing it. I did debate postponing Thanksgiving, and there were times while reading that I actually had to stop, put the book down in my lap, and just freak out for a minute about how good it was. This was a book I found myself reading while walking down a crowded street at midday in Chinatown, a childhood behavior to which I rarely revert... Anyway, all of this did, for me, emphasize the limitations of the four-star rating. Shouldn't I just give books five stars if I think they're "amazing"? I guess I will try it, and see how I feel.

This book was amazing! Remember how great and romantic Farewell to Arms was, except that the female character was sort of a misogynistically drawn 2D fuckdoll, and the protagonist was a bit of an inarticulate, hypermasculine alcoholic brute? Well, imagine that book only British, not American, with a sensitive refined young wounded soldier and adorable cute boy orderlies instead of Hemingway's somewhat ridiculous female characters... Okay, this really wasn't anything like Farewell to Arms, and the comparison doesn't do justice to either book. They just both had romances in hospitals between wounded soldiers and hospital staff: I guess it's a genre, and not just those two... it's very romantic, all this wounding and nursing! Well, it is in the books. I don't know about real life.

The Charioteer was like some kind of dream birthday dinner of all my favorite foods. Instead of stuffed tomatoes and coffee ice cream, it had England during World War II, gay romance, and some of the most stunningly skillful writing I think I've ever read. I can't remember many books that more successfully conveyed private emotional states, a description of the physical world, complex and convincingly human characters and their interactions, and all the rest of that stuff that contributes to making up a really class-A, five-star novel. While reading this, I remembered that novels are an art form. As I personally read just for pleasure and judge books exclusively on their merits as entertainment, when I'm forced to confront this artwork thing it feels like a revelation. The Charioteer accomplishes so much of what it is I believe successful literature should do: that is, it conveys the fine and subtle specificity of a certain time, place, and character, while tying this individual story to the broad human experience. Anyone who can hang her novel on some Plato, as Renault does, and make it work so beautifully that a girl like me actually spends time poking at the Phaedrus online, deserves some sort of prize -- perhaps an extra star!

I couldn't stop wondering, as I read this, why I tend so often to love novels about mid-twentieth-century gay men so much. I think I must enjoy the inherent romance and painfully secret subtlety surrounding homosexual relationships in the pre-Stonewall era: there are few things as romantic as a forbidden, secret love that persists amidst strong social prohibitions, plus these books often avoid the tired cliches of heterosexual romances, and therefore seem more fresh. I also really enjoy the unsaid, unspelled-out nature of these relationships. There were so many conversations in this book that I had to read a few times before I caught the meaning implicit between the lines. A lot of that is probably its being British, on top of being gay, but the kind of careful and cryptic, thickly-coded social interaction which is what makes earlier, nineteenth-century novels about upper-crusty types so fascinating, survives longer in gay fiction. I love reading this stuff. It's like doing a crossword puzzle, trying to figure out what it means, only a crossword puzzle with a payoff beyond just the process.

I think another reason I like reading older books about gay men is that I'm so exhausted by depictions of women as objects of desire and of female sexuality, that it's a huge relief to get the romance without having to think about that stuff. There's something so relaxing about it, to me, dodging all those feminist issues, yet still getting the kind of novel I want. There are actually quite a few well-drawn female characters in The Charioteer, and this was one area where it seemed unsurprising that the author was a woman. I am really interested now in Mary Renault. I want to read everything else she wrote, and though I'm not sure how I feel about historical fiction set in Ancient Greece, if it's anything like this, I am sure I will love it.

I really can't say I'd recommend this unreservedly to everyone, though if you're interested in historical fiction about gays in the military, it's hard to imagine that you could do better. I also recommend this to people who love the Novel, especially the life-during-wartime British Novel, which I have to say, I should think would be a lot of you.
August 27, 2021
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“He was filled with a vast sense of the momentous, of unknown mysteries. He did not know what he should demand of himself, nor did it seem to matter, for he had not chosen this music he moved to, it had chosen him.”

This is the fifth time I’ve read The Charioteer and once again I’ve been swept away by it. The Charioteer is quite likely my favourite novel of all time as there are few books that I care as much about.
There is something comforting about The Charioteer, which is strange given that Mary Renault’s impenetrable prose demands her readers’ full attention. There are the coded conversations, thoughts and feelings are often only obliquely hinted at, the pages are full of 40s slang, and there are constant allusions to the ancient classics. Yet, her writing also has a languid quality, perhaps reflective of her protagonist’s convalescence, which I found truly enthralling.
In an almost Bildungsroman fashion The Charioteer introduces us to Laurie as a child. This first chapter recounts a significant moment of his childhood and is followed by a chapter of him at school where he has a memorable encounter with the Head of the School, Ralph Lanyon. The subsequent chapters follow Laurie as he’s recovering from a war injury at a hospital. Here he meets and falls for Andrew, a conscientious objector who is now working as an orderly.
While Laurie is aware of his sexuality, and believes that Andrew reciprocates his feelings, he’s unwilling to reveal to Andrew the true depth of his emotions. By chance Laurie ends up re-connecting with Ralph. As the title of the novel suggests, Laurie’s story can be likened to the myth of the charioteer from Phaedrus.
Now, I know that my summary doesn’t do this novel justice. I don’t wish to reveal too much about the story or its characters. Still, I can say that The Charioteer presents us with a beautiful narrative, one that captures a particular moment in time. The characters’ days are punctuated by Imminent Danger sirens, air raids, shortages. Laurie, alongside other patients, has to obey the hospital’s strict rules. Under Renault’s hand, the war seems almost ‘normal’, and characters will often discuss it as they would any other topic.
Renault’s portrayal of the gay community feels both intimate and compelling. While Laurie himself feels uneasy towards those he deems as ‘flamboyant’ or ‘effeminate’, the narrative doesn’t share his prejudices. Renault’s characters often engage themselves in conversations relating to their role in society, often professing contrasting beliefs. The views they express may ruffle some readers, as they often speak about their sexuality as a limitation or they seem dismissive towards other gay men (partly because both Laurie and Ralph are private individuals and do not wish to be a source of gossip). Their discussion on ethics and morality were riveting, and I soon lost myself in the rhythm of their back and forth.
The novel is as interested in what the characters say as it is with what they don’t say, whether this is due to self-censoring or self-denial. Although Laurie is the story’s protagonist, much of what he feels remains off page. Renault will often only allude to Laurie’s most innermost feelings. Because of this Laurie, and other characters, often seem like unsolvable puzzles. This is quite fitting given that self-knowledge and self-deception are central themes within this narrative.
Laurie’s story is also one that is concerned with connection. Although he becomes fast friends with another patient, he fears being ‘known’. Yet, in spite of this sense of loneliness, he is reticent about ‘embracing’ his community (“He kept telling me I was queer, and I’d never heard it called that before and didn’t like it. The word, I mean. Shutting you away, somehow; roping you off with a lot of people you don’t feel much in common with […]”).
Miscommunications abound in this novel. At times the characters make tentative attempts to form more meaningful relationships but they often betray themselves by not saying what they want to say or by saying the wrong things.

Renault captures with poignancy sadness, anxiety, self-divide, awkwardness, tenderness, longing, ambiguity, confusion, honour, passion, and hope. Her characters reveal her piercing understanding of human nature. Through her expressive and elegant writing Renault demonstrates her inside knowledge of the society she depicted (Renault was both a lesbian and a nurse, which is possibly why she can so conjure up both queer parties and the daily routines of a hospital).
I love everything about this novel. Laurie's quest for identity, the struggle between his desires and his ideals, is as moving as it is thought-provoking.
A truly complex and multi-layered masterpiece that is both heart-rending and intelligent.
Impenetrable, subtle, beautiful, touching. I can't recommend this novel strongly enough.
If you are a fan of gay classics (such as Maurice, Carol, Giovanni's Room, and the underrated Olivia ), you should definitely give Renault a try. I don't think I will ever get tired of re-reading this novel. Each time my understanding for the characters, their inner-struggles and relationships, deepens (although i own a copy of this, this time around i read a kindle copy from overdrive...and i ended up making nearly 500 highlights....which, yeah, that's how much i love this story).

ps: if you have anything negative so say about Ralph, I will fight you
(i'm only half-jesting)

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads
Profile Image for Josh.
Author 167 books4,972 followers
January 30, 2008
Probably the single most influential book I ever read. Beautifully written, evocative, haunting, powerful.
Profile Image for Julio Genao.
Author 9 books1,981 followers
November 8, 2015
significantly excellent.

in some passages so stunningly real and identifiable i found myself experiencing things that had happened to me in nearly the same way, as if for the first time.

i feel like i already knew everyone i met in this book.

definitive. absolutely definitive.

discussion with author alexis hall: http://www.prismbookalliance.com/2014...
Profile Image for Whitaker.
294 reviews497 followers
July 16, 2014
Shame on me! When I first heard of Mary Renault and her gay novels, I immediately assumed that because they were written in the 1950’s and by a woman that they were bound to be bad. Shame, shame, shame!

I stand duly chastised. And somewhat in awe of Mary Renault. She really gets the whole living in fear and shame thing, the way it distorts your life, causes you to doubt yourself, the overly sensitive panic that “They” somehow know. She never comes out to hit us on the head with this. She just describes Laurie’s emotions and thoughts, often indirectly. She’s discreet and restrained, and it’s a stellar example of how less can be more.

There were some parts that gave me pause. In one scene, Laurie says to an exhausted friend, “You’ll be all right because you’re more a doctor than you are a queer.” One reading would see it as encapsulating all that 50’s homosexual self-loathing that we are so familiar with. On another reading--the one I prefer--it's a statement that gay men and women are not just their sexuality, in the same way that straight men and women are not just their sexuality. The trouble comes when it’s all that you define about yourself when we are all so much more than that. And I would like to believe that that is what she meant, because in so many other ways, she really nailed it.
Profile Image for K.M. Soehnlein.
Author 4 books142 followers
July 13, 2013
I knew nothing about this novel when I began reading it. By the time I was done, I was convinced it belonged near the top of the list of the best novels ever written about gay characters.

Mary Renault is known for her historical fiction set in ancient Greece, but The Charioteer takes place during World War II, mostly inside a British hospital where Laurie (Laurence), whose kneecap was blasted away at the Battle of Dunkirk, is recuperating. Laurie becomes enamored with a hospital orderly named Andrew, a conscientious objector who is scorned by the other wounded veterans in the hospital. Later, visiting London on a one-day pass, Laurie gets swept into a circle of cosmopolitan gay men, among them Ralph, whom Laurie had a hero-worship-crush on when they were in school together. The novel’s plot might be boiled down to the love triangle that grows out of these relationships, but there’s a lot more going on here: a timeless exploration of the nature of homosexuality and the essence of love; a depiction of the struggle queers experience navigating between their families of origin and the social families they create; and the daily challenges of disability, as both Laurie and Ralph have been mutilated in the course of their military service.

So why isn't The Charioteer as well known as other mid-20th century masterworks like Giovanni’s Room and A Single Man? Is it because Renault was a woman writing about men, which somehow invalidates her point of view? (As a lesbian in a lifelong relationship, she certainly understood the position of queer people in contemporary society.) Is it because her portrait of Ralph's social circle is loaded with supporting characters who display a stereotypical backstabbing bitchiness? (But no one she presents here is as villainous as the queens in Giovanni’s Room; plus, I’d argue that Renault’s portraiture illuminates how homophobia warps human behavior and turns the victims into victimizers.)

It may also be that The Charioteer is obscure because it’s a challenging work of literature. The contemporary American reader has to fight through layers of British references to public schools, the military, the geography of London neighborhoods, and so on. Characters talk in a naturalistic style wherein subjects of conversations are referred to but not always named; some subjects (like homosexuality) simply couldn’t be spoken about directly at the time, so the reader wades through inference and suggestion to get to what’s at stake. And then there’s Renault’s knowing, often ironic prose style, which doesn’t offer easy exposition, doesn’t “explain.” We are thrust into scenes and have to figure out where we are and what’s changed since the previous chapter. I frequently found myself flipping back to reread moments whose meaning had eluded me.

In a lesser novel all of that would have been frustrating, but Renault is such a good writer, and her characters are so fleshed out and compelling, that the book made me want to work hard for its pleasures. Laurie’s conflict between his chaste crush on Andrew and his more complicated relationship to Ralph generates a lot of suspense in the novel’s second half. The harrowing picture of life during the London Blitz, with its air raid sirens and blackout curtains and sudden bursts of gunfire, created a backdrop of uncertainty and danger. The slow awakening of the central character to self-determination, at the core of which is his love for other men, was set against a reading of Plato’s "Phaedrus," which contains the myth of the charioteer that gives the novel its title, and points the way to Renault’s more famous books, written after this.

Whatever the reason for its relative obscurity, The Charioteer strikes me as ripe for rediscovery.
Profile Image for Raul.
276 reviews199 followers
February 4, 2021
I've been meaning to re-read this for sometime now. It's one of those books that feel formative to me and so I wanted to know how it held up after some years. This was one of, if not the first full length gay novel I had ever read. I had read a lot of gay stories online in my late teens, mostly from sites like Gay Authors and Literotica, and they were important in that they showed me that I wasn't as alone as I thought I was and they were also readily accessible. I had known about "The Charioteer" for a while, it was always highly recommended and it was one of those books I hoped to get shipped to me someday. Then one day as I was looking at books on a shelf in my local library I saw the familiar name Mary Renault in golden letters on an old black book's spine, the book had not been borrowed since the 80s. It took me some moments to get over the disbelief and I hurried to get the book checked out as though it might have disappeared at any moment. And it had been a literary feast.

The story itself is one of the oldest ever told. A love triangle involving two British soldiers who survived Dunkirk and a pacifist who was torn about going to the war and didn't in the end. Laurie, who is the protagonist, has had an admiration and love for Ralph since they were in school and one day when an incident happens that forces Ralph out of school, he gives Laurie his copy of Phaedrus. They lose touch and the second world war begins, Laurie is injured and nearly dies following an attack and it is while he is recovering in hospital that he meets Andrew, a member of the Quaker faith and starts a friendship when the pacifist group of volunteers he belongs to is met with harassments from the soldiers and general community. Then as a love between Andrew and Laurie develops, Ralph and Laurie meet again, complicating things.

Among the other fascinating parts of this wonderful book is the language. This books like other gay novels written during or about the pre-legalization era in Western countries like Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, Delany's Dark Reflections, Forster's Maurice, Toibin's Story of the Night among others, has another language running below the language in the book. Language born out of hidden necessity and hard to describe better than how Renault writes:

'He had heard in Ralph's voice that secret overtone only half of which is created by the one who speaks, the other half of which is created by the one who listens, and which says in any language, "By and by all these people will have gone."'

I think it's very difficult to write a book about homosexual love in the 1940s between two disabled characters without exploiting pain and misery, but Renault handles it all so expertly and delicately that this book stands without a doubt as a favourite I shall return to again and again as long as I am able to through the years.
Profile Image for Kathleen in Oslo.
271 reviews49 followers
April 22, 2022
You may think I have been rather quick to decide I am in love. But he is clear kind of person, about whom one has to think clearly.

I went into this book almost completely blind. And reading it – a book published in the 1950s, a book full of things not said, or said elliptically, or only alluded to, or deliberately coded – was at times like fumbling in the dark. All the moreso because, admonitions to himself aside, our narrator Laurie is hardly clear-thinking. This is a love triangle where one player, Ralph, imprints himself strongly on the reader through his actions, words, and physicality, while the other love interest, Andrew, is seen primarily through the lens of idealized, disembodied, almost passive devotion – and Laurie, the apex of the triangle, is somehow both fully present and emotionally slippery, hard to get a handle on, torn between two loves and, more to the point, two visions of love and how these could possibly transmute into lives lived.

The Charioteer is a beautifully written, wryly funny, and enormously compelling read, once you come to terms with the fact that you’re not probably going to get everything that’s (un)said, if you’re even supposed to. It is propelled by a series of set pieces: Laurie’s father’s last night at home (his parents divorcing when Laurie is small, thus marking him as different from the outset); Laurie’s defense of and, he believes, last encounter with his idol Ralph Lanyon before the latter is expelled from school because of a forbidden relationship with a younger student (where Ralph and Laurie have a first, extremely discreetly rendered kiss); the world’s most excruciating, dramatic, alcohol-fueled party, where Laurie and Ralph first meet again as two disabled war veterans; an even more excruciating, dramatic, alcohol-fueled evening featuring a confrontation with Ralph’s then-paramour, Bunny; Laurie’s return home for his mother’s dreaded wedding to a horrible vicar, an event at which Ralph expectedly-unexpectedly appears; and a non-confrontation (more accurately, a confrontation-by-proxy) with Andrew in London followed by an agonizing quarrel with Ralph at the hospital, with heartstopping (and ultimately decisive) consequences.

Weaving through all of this is Laurie’s daily life as convalescent in a military hospital after being gravely wounded at Dunkirk. Here he meets Andrew, a Quaker, who with a group of other conscientious objectors is tasked with cleaning and other chores; and here Laurie falls almost instantly in love with this innocent, intelligent, direct, pure, chaste young man. The phrase “Platonic ideal” is of course apropos; and if I were classically educated, I could do more than simply note that Plato’s Phaedrus -- a treatise on kinds of love that makes a distinction between the erotic and the philosophical and features the myth of the charioteer -- features significantly not just as title, but also thematically and as artefact in the text, being passed first from Ralph to Laurie on the day Ralph is expelled, and ultimately from Laurie to Andrew.

The love triangle, then, is on the face of it a contest between the erotic (real) and the philosophical (ideal). Ralph, no longer fit for active service (he was a sailor), is living – not out, as homosexuality was criminalized in Britain until 1967 – but somewhat openly, having had relationships with men and socializing in the small, self-contained, self-policed gay community. Which isn’t at all the right term, and indeed, here’s where things get complicated. Because Laurie’s pull towards Andrew – who is so naïve that he seemingly doesn’t grasp even the concept of gay love and sex; and who I don’t read as asexual (to use a modern term) so much as devoid of even the most basic sexual imagination, in an idealized way that almost doesn’t have a modern equivalent – is very much connected to Laurie’s antipathy for other gay men both as individuals and a collective, as well as queerness as an identity. As Laurie explains to Ralph, recalling his first and only relationship with a gay fellow student at university:

“There was a man at Oxford. It was all rather silly. He looked a bit like one of the less forceful portraits of Byron. It wasn’t so much he himself who attracted me, though up to a point he did. There are always certain people at Oxford who seem to hold a key. I didn’t know what I expected he’d let me into, Newstead Abbey by moonlight or something. He kept telling me I was queer, and I’d never heard it called that before and didn’t like it. The word, I mean. Shutting you away, somehow; roping you off with a lot of people you don’t feel much in common with, half of whom hate the other half anyway, and just keep together so that they can lean up against each other for support. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to put all this into words before; am I talking nonsense?”

With smothered violence Ralph said, “Christ Almighty, no.”

Laurie doesn’t identify with these men and their “limitations” and “specialities”; he memorably tells Alec, a friend and ex of Ralph’s, that he needn’t worry about his personal dramas interfering with his final medical examinations because “you’re more a doctor than you’re a queer”; above all, he does not want to associate or be associated with a community that feels to him false and forced. A child of divorce, an educated man from the upper classes serving in enlisted ranks, a ex-soldier with a disability – these distinctions he has learned to accept or, at least, to live with. But he shudders from identifying himself with men he feels he cannot respect, who he does not even perceive as fully dimensioned.

(Sidenote: I feel like I’m not the right reader to pass judgement here; and of course, this is a 70-year-old text written when homosexuality was still criminalized, so it’s a different discussion to what would be had in relation to today’s LGBTQIA+ community(-ies). But I think there is still relevance to the question of how people in marginalized communities choose to identify, or not, with that community; and indeed, fellow Alexis Hall readers may be struck as I was with how this resonates with discussions between Ardy and Caspian in HTBAB and Oliver and Luc in BM. End sidenote.)

The aversion Laurie feels towards (his experience of) queerness-as-community/identity is far from the only factor drawing him to Andrew, but nor can it be disentangled from it. He admits this to himself freely, if rather morbidly:

You don’t get away from it, thought Laurie; once you’re really in, you never get away. You get swept along the road with the refugees, till you find you’ve been carried through the gates without noticing, and you’re behind the wire for the duration. The closed shop. Nous autres.

It would never be like that with Andrew, he thought. Talking in the hospital kitchen at night, they had felt special only in their happiness, and separate only in their human identities. How good it would be to see him now!

To Laurie, then, Andrew is this brave, reflective, unsullied idealist, who is marked out by his beliefs but not by his desires, and of whom nothing is asked or expected. But as Ralph – who, remember, has paid a price for acting on his desires, having been expelled from school and denied a university education – points out, this kind of love can only, ultimately, be conditional and suspended:

“You say this boy has guts, but what you’re trying to do for him is to keep him like a mid-Victorian virgin in a world of illusion where he doesn’t know he’s alive. He mustn’t be told he’s a passenger when human decency’s fighting for survival, in case it upsets his religion. He mustn’t be told he’s a queer, in case he has to do a bit of hard thinking and make up his mind. He mustn’t know you’re in love with him, in case he feels he can’t go on having his cake and eating it. If he amounts to anything, he won’t really want to be let off being human. And if he does want it, then he isn’t worth all this, Spud. I’m sorry, but there it is.”

We the reader don’t know if Andrew wants to be let off being human, but it happens all the same.

But while Ralph, in contrast to Andrew, is very much situated in the reality of life as a gay man, he no more wants to be defined by his identity than Laurie does. Indeed, as he says to Laurie when they first meet again (and which Laurie refers back to at a crucial point): “It’s not what one is, it’s what one does with it.” Ralph feels contempt for Sandy, Alec’s new partner, and Bunny, his lover -- both of whom, it must be said, are written effeminately and extremely dramatically (Sandy) and duplicitously (Bunny). Ralph does not vest any particular pride or integrity or sense of self in the community around him, but rather in the way he acts and takes responsibility for himself and his friends – that is, in his behavior towards others and his actions in relation to his own principles. Alec, the most clear-sighted of them all, describes Ralph to Laurie as “a person whom responsibility always seems to stick to”; he also says, equal parts accusingly and admiringly, “Everyone isn’t like you, Ralph, trying to carry the world.” But unlike Laurie, Ralph does not ascribe some inherent flaw or limitation to queerness and queer people, instead blaming the secretive, marginalized way they must live:

“It’s got like prohibition, with the bums and crooks making fortunes out of hooch, everyone who might have had a palate losing it, nobody caring how you hold your liquor, you’ve been smart enough if you get it at all. You can’t make good wine in a bathtub in the cellar, you need sun and rain and fresh air, you need a pride in the job you can tell the world about. Only you can live without drink if you have to, but you can’t live without love.”

It should be clear by now that I am wholeheartedly Team Ralph. And this is partly because Andrew, despite (or because of) his ideals, feels so insubstantial; how do you fall in love with a notion? But it’s also because, putting aside Plato and the erotic and the philosophical, what is clear as the story progresses is that Ralph is just as much an idealist and even more of a romantic than Andrew. He is, in fact, a romantic protagonist in a way that feels familiar to the modern romance reader. Ralph may seem cynical and jaded, navigating as he does this (in Laurie’s eyes) sordid world of compromise and limitations. And it is true that when he believed Laurie dead after Dunkirk, he lost hope: “When I heard you were dead, it seemed inevitable somehow. And after that, so did everything else.” But you can only lose hope if you have it in the first place; and when Laurie reappears in his life, we see that, of all of them, it is Ralph who believes most unwaveringly in love, united, in heart, mind, and body. And while Laurie initially believes that it is only Andrew who needs protecting from the (harsh, joyful) realities of life, he eventually comes to realize that Ralph is just as defenseless:

For Laurie couldn’t pretend to himself that even this last loyalty of the heart to Andrew was innocent. It was withheld at the expense of someone who on his side had withheld nothing, and whose need of love was in its kind no less. The idealist and the romantic in Ralph, reviving late and left for dead, felt its own wants with the greater urgency; and it had lived too hard, too close to the ground, to be deceived.


He had asked for nothing, except to give everything. He had made no claims. He had offered all he had, as simply as a cigarette or a drink, for a palliative of present pain.

As Alec astutely observes to Laurie:

“Ralph’s tragedy is that he’s retained through everything a curious innocence about it. I suppose when at last he loses that, the tragedy will be complete.”

Ultimately, then, the surface struggle between the real and the ideal, the erotic versus the philosophical, is being set up only to be knocked down (or more accurately, smashed together). To me, this story is really about what it means to know and be known in all one’s messy entirety. Yes, physical love and intimacy is a vital part of this; and Laurie and Ralph’s sexual relationship, though only obliquely referred to (“He had considerable skill and experience, and his heart was in it”), is clearly, deeply important, so much so that Laurie carries on meeting with Ralph even after he’s officially declared himself for Andrew. But more, it is about loving and being loved not just on the level of ideals but on the level of actions: not just for what you are, but what you do with it.

This is just a wonderful, emotional, unputdownable, heart-through-the-wringer book. I am already excited to read it again.
Profile Image for monika.
406 reviews1 follower
September 25, 2019
It’s a world record! I’ve got 53 notes and 204 highlights! I had to reread many passages a few times!?!?! And it was not enough.
I’m still in awe, how is this even possible for a ”bookish, suburban woman” in 1953 to write such a complex book about gay men?

story - 10 ⭐️

audio by Joe Jameson - 5 ⭐️
Profile Image for Troy Alexander.
193 reviews28 followers
June 27, 2022
Renault’s writing is exceptional and, as many other reviewers have stated, this is undoubtedly an important and brave novel for its time. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and was hooked right up to the final, moving, pages.
Profile Image for David.
865 reviews1,284 followers
July 17, 2007
Mary Renault is one of those authors for whom I was tempted to give 5 stars to all of her books, because I enjoyed them so much. But in the interests of maintaining standards (Hi Betsy!), I will give 5 stars to "The Charioteer", a book probably 50 years ahead of its time, but go ahead and recommend all of her historical fiction anyway. With perhaps "The Mask of Apollo" and "The King must Die" being my favorites among her remaining books.
Profile Image for Anyta Sunday.
Author 89 books2,505 followers
December 18, 2020
How does this not have more ratings and more reviews?

So exceptional it hurts.

Profile Image for Christy B.
342 reviews195 followers
September 17, 2011
My heart. Is it still there? Because I feel like someone tore it out and stomped on it.

I stayed up way later than I usually do, last night, to finish this, because I couldn't wait any longer. The intense and emotional turmoil inside of me started with Andrew's letter and followed through to the end.

It wasn't until I finished, and turned off the lights to go to sleep, that I realized what I had been holding in. And I cried for a few minutes: for the story, for the beautiful writing, for the characters.

The story was subtle and slow-moving; romantic and emotional. I can't stop thinking about it.
Profile Image for Optimist ♰King's Wench♰.
1,764 reviews3,836 followers
December 9, 2013
The Charioteer ~ Plato

…Let us say, then, that the soul resembles the joined powers of a pair of winged horses and a charioteer. Now the horses and drivers of the gods are of equal temper and breed, but with men it is otherwise… it sinks down in the midst of heaven, and returns to its own home. And there the charioteer leads his horses to the manger, and puts ambrosia before them, with nectar for their drink. Such is the life of the gods.

*Really helps to have some understanding of this allegory prior to reading this novel.*

Laurie is the epitome of the saying “still waters run deep”. He’s unflappable. He’s profound. He’s fickle. And, if I’m being completely honest, a wee bit annoying. He strikes me as very melancholy, destined to be forever dissatisfied. He has a wealth of intellect on the human condition but, has so much trouble expressing himself.

“Life is cruel, he thought; leaving out war and all that wholesale stuff, human life is essentially cruel.”

Some rather dramatic things do happen throughout the course of The Charioteer including a failed suicide attempt all of which seemed to be taken very cerebrally. Perhaps that’s just the way things were handled during this time, I couldn’t say but, I will say it was simultaneously refreshing and frustrating to have characters handle a situation rather than becoming histrionic about it. Still, there are some things in life that require some level of emotionality.

Person A: “I have the Ebola virus.”
Laurie: “That’s all right.”
Person B: “I have Chlamydia and I’ve infected most of the tri-state area. I’m fairly certain they’re going to sue me for all I’m worth.”
Laurie: “It’s all right.”
Person C: “I’m a sociopath and I’ve come to gut you like a pig and string up your remains in the back yard.”
Laurie: “That’s all right.”

NO! No, it most certainly is not all right!

All of The Charioteer is told through Laurie and begins with him as a child finding his father packing to leave which, I believe, is a large part of Laurie’s overall melancholic attitude. Laurie has been injured in WWII and the majority of the book covers his convalescence in hospital. He meets Andrew, an orderly, and falls “in love” with him. Their love is sublimated and, by today’s standards, virtually non-existent; however, the notions of subtlety and subtext seem de rigueur in Laurie’s world. It’s a stark contrast to contemporary society but, in all likelihood is a good representation of the trials and tribulations of being gay in wartime England complete with religious fanatics looking to convert those infected with homosexuality.

All of the characters are well developed. As a matter of fact, I can’t remember the last time I read a novel and knew exactly who that person was within a paragraph or two. Laurie’s mother is the perfect 1940s woman who doesn’t acknowledge anything that runs counter to her picturesque world. If she doesn’t acknowledge it, it doesn’t exist. Laurie tells her he’s gay, she keeps talking to him about marriage and children. Ralph Lanyon, Laurie’s crush from school who he runs into again, is a drunk but a plain spoken one! He’s actually the only character that I halfway liked. On the one hand, I see him as being indifferent to the whole notion of love while, on the other I think he’s a product of society’s constraints and does the best he can within them. He’s that person that shows his love or admiration rather than stating it but, he's also a stubborn ass at times. Andrew, I considered naïve yet possessing that childlike quality of viewing the world in its simplicity. Concrete thought contains a certain intelligence while ignoring the possibilities of the abstract and said concreteness led to the instance wherein I lost all respect for him. So, the gist is I didn’t particularly like any of these characters. I understand them, I even empathize with them but like? Not so much.

However, at the end of the day, I can’t rate it anything less than 4 stars based on the prose alone. That doesn’t even take into account how much I enjoyed the era-specific lingo such as “drip”, “pal” and “riff raff”, classics in my opinion.

A leisured view of the room yielded so many awful little superfluities, so many whimsies and naughty-naughties, tassels and bits of chrome, that one recalled one’s gaze shamefaced as if one had exposed the straits of the poor.

There is some military speak which went over my head but I don’t think it took away from the overall experience. It could do with a bit more clarity regarding who's speaking in the conversations. But, there were no typos that I found. If you’re interested in a historical read, you should enjoy this. If you’re interested in action and/or romance, look elsewhere.

A copy was provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Aubrey.
1,287 reviews731 followers
April 27, 2016
Today, the social justice movement it is ever so chic to belong to is that of same sex marriage. Whether this will continue past the vanilla white male couple with a couple of white male kids, whether success on this front means a tackling of the trans panic (genocide) defense law in 49 of my 50 states, whether this sensationalized narrowing of all the discrimination, the dehumanization, and the murder of all those beyond the pale of hetero/cis/etc-normativity will go the way of eradication of US slavery and granting of US white women suffrage, remains to be seen. Should this movement putter out as the non-intersectional fad it has been form fitted to be, the fearful tightrope of living portrayed in this novel will never end. The fact that this book has already incorporated itself so far into the reading community attests to how society likes to consider the issue of homosexuality and co.

Much as the subtle touch and go of a socially forbidden romance proves an indulgence to read, even more so when soaked in warfare, ancient literary influence, and the bildungsroman of a double life, I wouldn't wish it on anyone. Ongoing class discussions of a true "core" become rather superfluous in the face of what the realization of certain has historically afforded some. A span of time ago, this work's Laurie would have been considered fit to burn, but not at the stake. Later, it was anything from denial to disdain to incarceration, and it is only through an exhausting amount of acting that this work has scenes of peace, stability, and happiness. The more one has to balance the self to not be torn apart, the less one can trust inherent motivations, or know when it is necessary to bend in order to avoid the snap.

In many ways, this work plays on the stereotypes of the Euro/Neo-Euro male homosexual community, what with the beard and affiliation for Ancient Greece and the congregated promise of sexual rapacity. In others, it works through in that part-posed, part-admitted, always integrated negotiation of the self with society's response to such, one that happens to be English, classically educated, male, disabled, a veteran of war, a lover of men, and ever, ever so young. From this, one can see same sex marriage is only a grain in the sand.

Love, even under the most encouraged of circumstances, can be a nasty business. One may enjoy reading the narratives of yesteryear, but it's time for the multifarious social inhibitions to be holistically reevaluated. Too much life is caught up and cut for any argument of resulting benefit to hold.
Profile Image for Podga Podga.
Author 7 books13 followers
May 31, 2012
It's impossible for me to rate certain books objectively, because of the life-changing impact they had on me.

I read The Charioteer in 1976, when I was 13. I knew I was different, but not in a way that bore mentioning or even secret acknowledgement in the ulta-macho Greece of that time. The only gay man I was aware of was a guy, who sold feather dusters around the centre of Athens; he was campy, outspoken, mocked, and it scared me that I might be like him.

Even though I didn't understand all the subtext until years later, reading The Charioteer led me to understand what I am and what I might become. These aren't heroic characters, though they can be that, too. They're sometimes decent, sometimes petty. They drink too much, hide their fears behind rigid ideologies and codes of behavior, and in their effort to define their own place in the world, spend a lot of time judging others. And against the backdrop of war, it's easy to forget how very young they all are. But they remain deeply, incontestably human, a depiction of gay men I'd never seen until that time.

I don't know if first-time readers today would have the same reaction. It can be a slow book, with a lot of introspection about issues, which have, in many societies, been resolved today. I liked the pace, because at the time I was working through some of the same issues, and I still like it today, because I still don't know if I have answers to some of the questions The Charioteer helped me formulate back then. It's a romance, of sorts, but not really; rather the backdrop of loving and being loved serves to bring all the other emotions and feelings to the surface and to make them especially sharp.
Profile Image for Kristen.
18 reviews1 follower
October 29, 2008
This is my all-time favorite book, for many reasons that are hard to explain. In the simplest terms, it's a love story set in England during WWII. I'd recommend it for anybody who a) enjoys literary fiction b) is socially open-minded and c) doesn't need to be hit over the head with plot developments.

Some people have said that Mary Renault is too reserved, or too subtle in her descriptions of a scene. But I think she was a genius at capturing the real, honest essence of people and relationships. She's a master at communicating all those things that go unspoken, which can mean everything to a relationship.

If Renault has any flaw, it's almost that her characters are TOO good. It's hard not to fall in love with all of them...
Profile Image for Mel Bossa.
Author 32 books192 followers
September 2, 2017
It's official, I worship Mary Renault.

If there ever was a novel that explored homo-romantic (platonic) love this is it.

Laurie was severely wounded at Dunkirk and is in convalescence, being treated in a military hospital. The setting is one Renault knew well and it is apparent in all of the details and characters that make up the backbone of the story. Laurie knows he's gay but of course back then you wouldn't call it that. He carries with him Plato's Phadrus which has a passage where Socrates explains the myth/analogy of The Charioteer who holds the reigns on two horses that each equal in strength pull in opposite directions. This is the theme of the book. Laurie's painful struggle to reign in his nature while his heart pulls the other way.

His object of desire is Andrew a Quaker and conscious objector who has newly been hired as an orderly at the hospital. Andrew is shy, kind, devoted and sure of his ideals. He's a pacifist but not a coward. Soon Laurie and he begin a friendship that could with one touch or kiss turn into a love affair.

But Laurie is convinced that Andrew doesn't know his own nature yet. That Andrew hasn't realized that he is gay and because Laurie still believes one can change and marry and all that jazz, he holds back from Andrew to save him the terrible discovery of his nature.

Of course you have to forgive Laurie, this is 1940.

Now the other horse enters and he is Ralph, a handsome, reserved and generous naval officer also injured at Dunkirk. Actually Laurie knows him...

Ralph was house master back at school and Laurie had a crush on him though he didn't know to call it that. Now as he gets to spend time with Ralph while he has his evening passes, Laurie understands that it's possible to love and touch.

Yet he still longs for Andrew who represents innocence lost.

In the end I won't tell you which horse wins but it's a serene ending with an undertone of loss as well.

It is a subtle, poignant, extremely honest portrayal of gay love in the time when it was still a crime.

I loved every line.
Profile Image for Blandrea.
126 reviews4 followers
February 22, 2023
Ok. I'm dead now.

You know when you find a book and you just roll around in it like a hippo in mud? No? Just me? Watching Laurie's journey, hearing his thought process on love, war, pacifism, faith, relationship and masculinity. Just *chef kiss*

Anyway read another review if you want a synopsis. Here's my take away: this is a story that happens in subtext, it happens in "..." and in unspoken words. To be able to write that is an extraordinary gift.

Also an Adelaide shout out! Was Renault probably talking about the Adelaide in South Africa? Probably. Still counts!
Profile Image for Erastes.
Author 31 books274 followers
June 11, 2010
It’s hard for me to do a review of this book for many reasons. It seems a bit cheeky for me to even try – and it’s been around for so long I would imagine that just about everyone I know has read it, but if this review tempts one person who hasn’t to give it a whirl, then I’ll have achieved something. So perhaps it’s less of a review and more of a personal rave. That I love it, is a given.

It’s a simple enough story on the surface. Laurie, young idealistic, attempts to defend Ralph, the head boy at his school, when he is about to be sent down for “misbehaving with a younger boy.” Ralph finds out before Laurie can act and warns him off. During the discussion Ralph gives Laurie a copy of Plato’s Phaedrus which he keeps with him and uses as a model for his life. Time moves on – World War 2 happens and we next catch up with Laurie in hospital where he’s developing a heavy crush on a concientious objector, Andrew – and then he meets Ralph again.

The Charioteer is the thread and metaphor which runs throughout the book. The Charioteer of Phaedrus handles two horses, one runs smoothly and obediently, the other fights against the control – it is up to the charioteer to make them run as a pair. The parallels for the charioteer are myriad – the comparison between “normal” sexual behaviour and the homosexual – the love that Laurie feels for Andrew and the relationship he eventually forms with Ralph to name just two.

I’m sure there are tons of themes that the more intellectual have found/discussed to the skies, but the best thing for me is that it’s a lesson in how to write – without actually writing. The book is sparse to the extreme, it’s like she wrote a much longer book and then cut huge hunks out of the middles of each scene. Conversations are handled in real time, characters don’t finish sentences, and there are utterly intriguing gaps where the reader “loses time” – where something may have happened, a look, a kiss or a sex scene. It’s amazingly skilful and all I could do was smash my keyboard to pieces in frustration that I’ll never come close to that.

The characters are indelibly imprinted on my mind, all except perhaps Andrew, which is probably deliberate because we see him only through Laurie’s eyes and Laurie isn’t objective. I found him too remote to be interesting, whereas the characters that Laurie meets at the queer party he attends are stronger – and my heart broke over the young airman who comes over brash and unbearable until you think about what he’s doing, for his job. Ralph is irresistable – as Laurie finds him to be, and I really felt the attraction, he’s quite my favourite character – but all of them are amazingly well done, complex, contrary, stupid and real.

One of the best books I’ve ever read – regardless of theme – and one of the Essential Reads for anyone interested in the genre, in my opinion.
Profile Image for Charles Edwards-Freshwater.
228 reviews93 followers
September 4, 2020
First read of September and it was a good one!

Set among war torn Britain during the blitz, the story centers around a gay soldier (Laurie, or Spud/Spuddy to those who know him) and his struggle with his affections for a sweet, mild conchie man who works at the hospital and his ex school fellow whom he runs into while recovering from a nasty leg injury incurred at Dunkirk.

There's a lot to absolutely love here - beautifully woven relationships, gorgeous prose, characters with a great psychological depth to them - the whole scenario is very real. Some reviewers have stated that the supporting cast of gay men are all bitchy queens and this is offensive, but to me I think that's not necessarily the case - anyone will know that people with this sort of personality do exist, but even so, characters such as Bunny had a certain depth to them - a sad inability to keep up with the Plato-spewing glorified main gay characters which manifested in petty actions. It all seemed very authentic.

Renault also has a fabulous way of writing a paragraph full of meaning that you really need to knuckle down with and reread a couple of times to fully understand. In a more ordinary story this would be frustrating, but here it echoes the secrecy of the gay characters and their need to remain hidden. Things are kept on the down low even to the reader, and in a way where you have to strip back the layers to really understand what's going on. Masterful stuff. There is an argument that this makes the story feel antiseptic and without sexual desire, but I disagree here too - it's a sort of closed desire, a pure kind of attraction - it's subtle but powerful.

My only real problem with this novel is that it didn't end how I wanted it to - although the ending is definitely on the more positive side. I think I too was suckered in by the other candidate of the love triangle and felt that Laurie deserved better, but I see how this ending does make more sense in the grand scheme of things and, perhaps, is more romantic in some ways.

A landmark piece of gay literature that deserves more attention.

4.5 - 5 stars
Profile Image for Melcat.
242 reviews25 followers
January 31, 2023
The Charioteer by Mary Renault is a stunning piece of literature that will stay with you long after you've finished reading it. The writing is so immersive, it's impossible not to be fully invested in the story and its characters. The emotions evoked by the book are powerful and left a lasting impact on me.

This is a must-read for for those looking for a moving, thought-provoking read, and a highly regarded classic of gay literature. I highly recommend this book and give it my highest rating of 5 stars. It has truly changed me as a person and I am grateful for the experience of reading it.
Profile Image for BevS.
2,707 reviews2 followers
December 12, 2020
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Where do I start with this one?? The prose outdoes Harper Fox herself…and I didn’t think that could be done. Haunting, evocative, brilliant writing, which easily captures the tense atmosphere and gloomy, subdued mood of the early WWII years extremely well. Who to trust, what to say, how to behave…these weren’t just issues for the gay population to think about and concern themselves with at that time, although they obviously had much more to lose should their ‘secret’ see the light of day.

Yes, it is a love story of sorts, although there is no HEA. It was fairly obvious to me that Ralph was aware of [and keen on] Laurie even when they were at school, and although Laurie probably wasn’t that aware of it himself then, he idolised Ralph, and put him on a pedestal. After Ralph is ‘sent down’ in disgrace from school, they meet again 7 years later under very different circumstances….Ralph is in charge of the Merchant Navy vessel that has picked up several injured survivors from the Battle of Dunkirk in 1940, and Laurie just happens to be one of those survivors.

I’m not going into too much detail. There were characters I really liked, and there were a few I actually despised [Bunny, Sandy, Laurie’s mum and future step father in law...take a bow], but the main thrust of the story is about Laurie…his hopes and ideals, his 'innocence', his reluctance to accept himself for what he is AND his meeting a young man, Andrew, who knew even less about himself than Laurie did. Andrew was a CO [conscientious objector] who was being 'volunteered' to help out as an orderly in the hospital that Laurie was convalescing in. Laurie was smitten, and up until meeting Ralph again at a party [and there I really felt Laurie's awkwardness and perhaps a little touch of embarrassment at the 1940's equivalent of today's 'meat' market], was perfectly happy to drift along in an almost dreamlike state imagining how the future could be. Andrew's character was almost too good to be true really...a paragon of virtue, and Ralph who was only human after all and admittedly made mistakes, drank like a fish and smoked like a chimney was his complete opposite, but oh…so much more fleshed out as a ‘real’ living and breathing person.

I could really imagine this one being narrated in the kind of voice that BBC announcers in the 1950's used to have...very public school, proper and correct [check it out on YouTube or whatever 😉]. As far as Joe Jameson’s performance as narrator is concerned, I was very impressed. He’s really good at accents, at female voices and at voicing numerous characters [as in this particular story] with ease. Yes, I’m aware that Joe Jameson is Hamish Long of Brothers of the Wild North Sea and Rusty Coles of The Lost Prince, and to be honest, the problem I had with him in Brothers of the Wild North Sea was evident in this one too, but it was a minor niggle and I was much too involved in the story to bother about it.
Profile Image for Linda ~ they got the mustard out! ~.
1,555 reviews100 followers
January 15, 2023
I had a much different book in mind than the one I got, which isn't the book's fault, but it did color my expectations going into this. I was expecting battlefields and war trauma. Instead, I got a mellow, quaint little story of a guy recovering from an injury in hospital after the British retreat from Dunkirk.

I liked Laurie well enough. He was considerate and kind, and trying to figure himself out. He knew he was gay but had no idea what that actually meant. Then there's Ralph, who I never really warmed up to. He was a bit too forward and pushy for my tastes, and his friends didn't really reflect well on him. Andrew was a dear and But the story ends in kind of an open-ended way, and it's not particularly fulfilling, though probably the only ending it really could have had.

It was very easy to see why this would be so revolutionary for its time and why it's considered a gay classic. It certainly helped pave the way for the M/M genre we have and enjoy today. It's extremely tame by today's standards, which I don't particularly care about, but it more alludes to things than outright states them, and I never really got attached to the characters or got all that into the story.

The narrator was okay, though he sometimes switched voices he was using for one character with the voice of another character. The editing for this audiobook really isn't excusable. There were several instances of lines being repeated, and I suspect at least two instances of lines being cut off. Without having a copy of the ebook or print book, though, I have no way to confirm that. Additionally, they put the foreword (full of spoilers) and the first chapter in the same audio chapter, but then later split up longer chapters into two files. There was no reason then to not have the foreword separated into its own - and therefore easily skipped - file.
Profile Image for Emanuela ~plastic duck~.
805 reviews115 followers
March 11, 2012
A review is not possible, not for me anyway, because the book is so rich and complex I don't think I have the means to write about it. Just a few thoughts.

I can't explain how pervasive Laurie became page after page. I thought I was keeping an equal distance from him and the other characters, but when I got to the end, I realized I wasn't able to detach my point-of-view from his and he totally, totally convinced me of his perceptions, so much so that I thought Ralph had really spoken to Andrew. I read the last chapter with dread, shock, worry and being sorry and mortified.

Laurie is divided between the love for Andrew, which Laurie seems to want to keep innocent and spiritual, and the love for Ralph, which is physical and brings with it the participation to a circle of gay men, that Laurie seems not to be able to accept, because it seems to exclude them from the rest of society.

The writing is subtle and beautiful, it's not only to be read, but also to be contemplated. We are so used to being open, but the constant tension of what is said or left unsaid, because the concern for social propriety was so ingrained in the characters, makes you always hyper-aware of each word. There are moments of obscurity, but also moments of revelation. You are expecting something, and it happens under your eyes without you realizing it. You are in the dark, then the author sheds a light, until it becomes blinding.

Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for A.
278 reviews100 followers
February 15, 2015
I think this was meant to be one of the most emotionally sophisticated and nuanced books I've ever read. Unfortunately, trying to make any of those emotional moments even remotely legible in the face of Renault's unnecessarily opaque writing style was basically impossible, and as such the actual reading experience was incredibly unpleasant and ultimately disfigured the book's true beauty. It's one thing to not allow the characters to speak frankly for fear of having their queerness exposed and their lives ruined; it is another thing to inexplicably apply that same circumspection to your plot, motivations, authorial digressions, etc. I can appreciate a literary project that decides to demand a lot of heavy lifting from the reader -- that's what early Modernism was all about if we are to believe Joyce, Stein, Eliot, et al -- but the effort required here felt arbitrary. This was a love story and a coming of age story. Melodrama loses a lot of its power and all of its ability to pack a wallop if you have to re read and infer moments of trauma and catharsis 5-10 times to even grasp their significance.
Profile Image for Aitziber.
71 reviews25 followers
September 11, 2014
I'm not sure that my review can ever do The Charioteer justice. One look at other people's reviews and it'll be immediately apparent that Renault has touched her readers deeply, and I'm no less than everyone else.

The Charioteer is a novel to be savored. It works on more than one level, and in fact it's one of those books that can be re-read to discover what you missed the first, second, third time around. When you have finally extracted all the meanings you are able to, it is time to read The Phaedrus and understand all the references that Renault makes to it.

I was deeply moved by this novel. I feel that I barely scratched at the surface of it, and yet I was already so ensnared by it. I love a book that tricks you, and while I wouldn't say that Renault is a trickster, she definitely writes so that Laurie's confusion is extended to the reader, and so that what we think we know, or want, is not true at all. And if a book can do that to us, so shall we ask ourselves, what if life has also done?
Profile Image for Michael.
67 reviews4 followers
April 29, 2020
65 stars. One of the best books I've ever read. I'm not joking - I'm actually HEARTBROKEN that I've finished this because I could read about Ralph and Laurie and Andrew and every other character F O R E V E R AND A YEAR. This is probably the worst book hangover I've ever had and I don't think I can start reading anything else for at least a week because it just doesn't feel right!!!

The ending fucked me up and I loved how it wasn't a clear cut conclusion. What really, really moved me were the scenes midway in - the first party, the conversations in Ralph's car, driving Laurie back....the scenes where they parked in the spot overlooking the quarry.... and then later on in the book when Ralph showed up at Laurie's wedding, and the after party - like why have I not felt that kind of emotion in real life!? Am I a cold, heartless monster?!? But actually it's probably because I don't have anyone as talented as Mary Renault narrating my life.
Profile Image for Jes.
272 reviews18 followers
January 5, 2023
Bahhh. The books I love best of all are the savage ones—the ones whose endings make you physically double over, because when you are that overwhelmed by grief and joy your entire body must register the shock. I like books that you never recover from; and I think this will be one of those, for me. Possibly I will write a more coherent review later, or possibly I never will, out of a desire to keep this reading experience very sacred and close.
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