"Blazing . . . casts a spell right from the start." --Dwight Garner, The New York Times
"A timeless and heartbreaking love story." --Celeste Ng, author of Little Fires Everywhere
"An extraordinary book." --Lauren Groff, author of Florida
Illuminating one of the great love stories of the twentieth century - Tennessee Williams and his longtime partner Frank Merlo - Leading Men is a glittering novel of desire and ambition, set against the glamorous literary 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.
Castellani's spectacular fourth novel (after 2013's All This Talk of Love) imagines the relationships between Tennessee Williams, his lover Frank Merlo, and a young actress named Anja Bloom, whom they take under their wing. In 1953 Italy, Tenn and Frank make the acquaintance of faltering writer Jack Burns, an alcoholic who's emotionally abusive to his doting lover, Sandro Nencini. Frank finds a foil in Sandro, who recognizes Frank's devotion and loneliness as Tenn writes, ignores him, and has brief dalliances with other men. While Tenn's also inspired by Frank to write plays and helps him pursue his dream of acting, Sandro's dedication goes largely unappreciated. Frank is beloved by Anja, a 17-year-old who flees her mother and finds fame with director Martin Hovland. The '50s scenes are interspersed with chapters set a decade later as Frank lays dying in a cancer ward, having been all but abandoned by Tenn, and a present-day period when Sandro's college-aged son Sandrino befriends Anja. Anja reveals that Tenn wrote an awful final play in which he didn't do Frank justice; she waffles as Sandro tries to convince her to produce it instead of destroying it. Castellani's novel hits the trifecta of being moving, beautifully written, and a bona fide page-turner. This is a wonderful examination of artists and the people who love them and change their work in large and imperceptible ways.