A Single Man

Title: A Single Man
Author: Christopher Isherwood
Publisher : University of Minnesota Press (2001)
Buy Link: Amazon.com
Genre:  Vintage M/M (first published 1964)
Length: Novel  (188 pages)
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

A guest review by Erastes

When A Single Man was originally published, it shocked many by its frank, sympathetic, and moving portrayal of a gay man in midlife. George, the protagonist, is adjusting to life on his own after the sudden death of his partner, and determines to persist in the routines of his daily life; the course of A Single Man spans twenty-four hours in an ordinary day. An Englishman and a professor living in suburban Southern California, he is an outsider in every way, and his internal reflections and interactions with others reveal a man who loves being alive despite everyday injustices and loneliness. Wry, suddenly manic, constantly funny, surprisingly sad, this novel catches the texture of life itself.

When I told a friend about this book, I said “it’s very well written” and she said “Well, der! Isherwood!” and I laughed. But then I’ve only read Goodbye to Berlin and I was very young then, and didn’t know good from bad.

It’s possibly one of the most perfect little books I’ve read, absorbing from the first page and written in such a way that it feels like first person but it’s actually written in third, astoundingly clever to my eyes. You get as easily into George’s head as if it were first person.

Set over 24 hours, it simply covers his thought processes as he moves through the day and you learn a lot about him and the world in which he lives. From the first section he touches your heart as – as anyone who has suffered bereavement will understand – he wakes up and remembers again that his lover is dead. But he’s not pessimistic about his outlook – he doesn’t like the way that conservatism is encroaching upon the once bohemian area where he lives – once where there was artists and poets and easy sexual values, families are moving in, with more straight-laced ideals, but in juxtoposition to this, he loves youth.

He teaches at the University and the scenes with the Gidget-era youth are rather sweet and truly give a window into a lost American world. He does watch the athletes for his own enjoyment which was a nice touch.

I loved his optimism, despite how much he missed Jim, and the way that he finds the light and the dark in his life. He interacts with many people throughout the day, he’s not at all an isolated person, but I was left feeling that he was spinning on the spot, lonely despite all the people who know and care from him. Without the one intimate friend he needed.

And really – that’s about it apart from(spoilers below) He’s a truly likeable guy, and towards the end of the book he’s feeling optimistic about life. He had a lovely drunken evening first with a neighbour and then with a student friend, skinny dipping and a lot of drink. It’s difficult to tell whether anything happened, but I don’t think it did. He goes to bed at the end of his 24 hours feeling that it was time that he moved on with his life and that he was ready to look for love again. What would have been far more realistic and upbeat would have been if Isherwood had left it there. It would have been lovely to think that’s what George does next. But – whether for literary merit – or for the tradition that – in books of this period – all gay guys MUST die at the end – he doesn’t. And it was the ending that spoiled it for me and made me want to throw the book across the room, and made it lose a five star ranking.

My thanks to Erastes and Speak its Name for allowing this cross posting.

Note: A Single Man has just been released as a movie directed by Tom Ford starring Colin Firth, Matthew Goode and Julianne Moore .



  • I borrowed this from the library recently. I’m not sure “enjoyed” is the right word to use, but I’m glad I read it, after reading all the buzz about the movie.
    I wasn’t quite as upset about the ending as you were, Erastes, but it made me think “here we go again, sigh” because of that

    tradition that – in books of this period – all gay guys MUST die at the end.


    I think the movie’s even worse in this regard. Tom Ford’s taken quite a few liberties with the story, apparently. I’m looking forward to seeing it, but it’s going to be a hard film to watch, knowing what’s going to happen at the end.

    • Yes, it gets very tired about the dead gays, and I’ve shot myself in the foot having a (seemingly) unsaleable literary novel with a tragic ending and all the publishers are (probably quite rightly) saying “no, we’ve had enough of the dead gays” !!!


      • Edrastes
        Does your new novel have one of the protagonists dying at the end?

        It seems to me that most movies with gay lovers always have tragic endings. Is this so that moviegoers can say – “see, they can never live happily ever after because they are queer”?

        • Nod nod. But it’s a true story and I really wanted to tell it.

          The trouble is, Wave, is that once upon a time that was the ONLY way you could have gay people in books, they HAD to die or you simply didn’t get published–and what happens is that as gay fiction becomes more popular, and movie guys are saying “hey lets make a gay movie from XXX classic book” there are going to be unhappy endings.

          The reason why I wrote Junction X–other than wanting to tell that true story of neighbours we had back then–is to emphasize the differences between England 1960 and now–and sadly the similarities between then and now. Sadly the suicide rate for young gay men is still hugely high, and I don’t think we should ever forget that.

          Hopefully some publisher will pick it up, but I don’t think the romance crowd will love it, despite it being a real love story.

  • Thanks for this review, Erastes. I want to read this book before I see the movie but unfortunately, it’s not available as an ebook (teeth gnash). I may be forced to (gasp!) go to the library. LOL

    Right now, the movie is only playing in New York, LA, SF, and Toronto. Wave, will you go see it, please, and give us all a review? LOL. Reviewers are already talking about an Oscar nomination for best actor for Colin Firth.


    • Leslie

      I actually bought this book but haven’t read it as yet because I know how it ends.

      I could go to the movie but not till next week. The reviews were all glowing even the NYTimes.


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Erastes is an author of gay historical fiction. Her novels cover many time periods and locations. She lives in Norfolk UK with demanding cats and never seems to have enough time to serve them.
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