Despite an upbringing by a deranged religious fanatic in the backwaters of West Virginia, Simion is an extremely intelligent child who thrives under the tutelage of the new school teacher, Lincoln. The two form a powerfully tight bond; Lincoln instills all his knowledge into his charge in an effort to prepare the youth for college and for the world. By the time Simion reaches his sixteenth year, he is more than prepared to stun the admissions board at Yale College.
One of the first trials he must pass is a Greek language examination, which is administered by Doriskos, an enigmatic and sharply aloof art professor. Doriskos’ cool detachment stems in no small part from the unusual circumstances of his upbringing and lead to him creating a perfect, if imaginary, partner for himself. For years on end, he imagined and drew and painted and obsessed about his idealized friend and lover yet always knew it was nothing but a substitute for the love he never experienced growing up.
When Simion and Doriskos first meet over a few translations of Greek classics, the attraction is immediate, intense, and best of all, reciprocated. As taboo as romantic love between two men in the 1880s is, it’s doubly damned given their respective stations. The pair fosters a romance that burns so deliciously slowly for them privately, yet from the outside is almost incendiary in its obviousness. Obstacles from all sides lap at Simion’s and Doriskos’ feet like a slowly rising tide even as they enjoy enormous personal growth as the years slip by at Yale. Just on the cusp of being free of those who would do them grievous harm, the dangerous waters rise to crisis levels and puts their love and devotion to the test.
The set up sounds sort of simple, but it belies an intensely layered and nuanced love story that unfolds between Simion and Doriskos. Watching these two in action was such a bittersweet joy for me. The story opens with what is basically two beginnings, one for Simion and one for Doriskos. Though wildly different in content, these early years explain how they ended up at Yale and why it was such a relief to even be there quite apart from the fact that they had instaboners for one another. Each of them is delightfully complex and extraordinarily well rounded, though I’d say Simion takes the prize for being the most, well, realistic—he’s a youth just entering the cusp of adulthood as he works on his studies, of course he’s going to want to explore and experiment. That is quite at odds with Doriskos who, although older, ultimately remains the more inexperienced of the two—simply because all he’s ever wanted since he was old enough to want anything was Simion.
The supporting cast also shines particularly with Moses and Helmut. Moses is another professor at Yale and Helmut is ostensibly Moses’ valet, but in reality his lover. While Moses is immediately smitten with the extraordinary intelligence he sees shining in Simion, he practically loathes Doriskos for even entertaining ideas about befriending the boy—yet as time passes and a health scare puts Simion’s life on the line, Doriskos proves his mettle above and beyond anything Moses thought the aloof Greek was capable of. Helmut is far more sympathetic and, in all honestly, lends more of a warm fuzzy quality to his scenes—he’s an excellent foil to Moses’ rage, but it’s hardly ever center stage. Over the course of the book, the established Moses/Helmut pairing offers glimpses of what life could and indeed maybe should be like between Simion and Doriskos, provided those who coveted Doriskos’ affections prior to Simion’s arrival don’t ruin everything first.
There are, in fact, no small number of youths who have clamored for Doriskos’ attention. While it was one thing for Doriskos to brush them all off and remain icily alone, it is quite another for them to realize there is an actual human who is able to capture Doriskos’ attention and hold it. One such student is a boy named Peter, who goes to great length to have Doriskos, or at the very least ruin Simion. It is by his hand that terrible and far-reaching events unfold that deeply affect Doriskos and Simion. Although he’s not the obvious choice for the main villain, he turns into a downright diabolical devil at the end. Of course, whatever outside forces might prevent Doriskos and Simion from finding true happiness wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans if their own sometimes misplaced expectations prevent them from staying together.
One thing I really loved about this is the depth and attention to detail. Argiri effortlessly places the action in a period of history that makes reading this piece a joy. Before starting, I was wary of the length, but the way the action unfolds and the characters go about their lives and interactions meant there was never a dull moment—indeed, there is so much human drama packed in, it feels more like binge watching something like Downton Abbey (albeit set across the sea and a generation or so earlier). The writing is absolutely lyrical, filled with descriptions and ideas that feel true to the period. I loved finding several new-to-me vocabulary words and the dialogue felts true to period, also. Plus, the sex (yeah, kids, there’s sex in this!)…what it lacks in sheer blunt descriptiveness it makes up for in the passion of feelings conveyed (especially between our two main characters, but also between a few others).
Here’s a little sample of bits that struck me as particularly prettily written of Doriskos Klionarios speaking to a member of the boarding school staff who is confused why Doriskos is so different from the other students:
“What’s the matter with you, Klionarios?…Can’t you do anything?”
Thinking in words and forcing them out was the hardest thing. I was sent here so I’d become human, though I already am; I am simply a different kind of human. What is not human is this place. If this is human, I don’t want to be. When I’m grown, I’ll find some place where there’s no one, and I shan’t ever let anyone touch me again. What he actually said was, with great effort, was, “I draw. I can do that.”
Also of Doriskos after one of his students at Oxford attempted to rape him and the fall out ultimately sent Doriskos to Yale:
Above all, the Grail within him, the part of him that was important and supernally fragile, and that was meant for only one person to touch, had nearly been fouled and desecrated.
One more, when Simion escapes his odious, vulgar, and emotionally pejorative roommates Peter and Topher to live with Doriskos:
“None of this is being done for the benefit of Peter and Topher,” said Andy. “And I think you had better toughen your lovely hide against gossip, because I can anticipate that it’ll be a constant in your life.”
“It’s not fair,” said Simion. “I was the one doing my work and minding my business. They were the ones raising Cain and doing revolting things and getting drunk. They have nerve to burn to say the first word about me. And they started the whole thing. What’s wrong with people? Why are they so mean? Why aren’t they rational?”
Andrew looked to Doriskos, wondering if he’d venture to explain these subtle realities. Then he realized that Doriskos saw nothing to explain; on his face Andrew read no irony, no grown-up’s amusement. Rather, he saw there an identical incomprehension, a sort of tender indignation; Doriskos ventures to pat Simion’s hand and say, “That’s all over now.” Andrew had no doubt [Doriskos] really thought so.
In short, if you want to read an intimate telling of a love tale between two extraordinary men at a time in history where such things were not only frowned upon but actually considered dangerous and punishable, this is an amazing read for you.