Oliver is the 20-year-old son of two loving mothers. When his curiosity leads him to seek out his biological father, his parents support him in taking a trip to Rome to meet the man–Henry–and experience some of life abroad. But in Michael Hartwig’s OLIVER AND HENRY, the titular relationship is only the starting point for a cascade of challenging reflections on personal identity and social change.
OLIVER AND HENRY expresses a real clarity of purpose from start to finish. The text is precise in its descriptions of the artistic and architectural wonders of Rome; it is languid in its descriptions of Roman food and dining culture; it conveys the warm, sunny freshness of morning walks on ancient cobbled streets. Its tone is, effectively, loving, and although there are a series of human relationships which drive the plot, the book’s most well-rounded character is Rome itself, which remains–as it has for millennia–a place where both locals and foreigners enjoy stunning sensual pleasures while also seeking lives of purpose and joy. The text conveys these truths with the confidence of an experienced and observant traveler. The human characters, however, leave something to be desired. Oliver is the protagonist–it is his journey which structures the plot, and his point-of-view which the text follows most closely. But his actions and speech never quite coalesce into a satisfying whole. Part of this problem is a sameness of voice which affects all the characters: 20-year-old American Oliver speaks his native English in precisely the same way as a 30-year-old Italian man speaking English as a second language, and especially when characters lapse into encyclopedic monologues about art history or sex and gender, some of the thin paint flakes away to reveal the fabric of the text’s major themes presented naked. None of the characters are uninteresting or unbelievable–on paper, priests conflicted about their complicity in the Catholic church’s policies on LGBTQ issues or young people first exploring their sexuality abroad offer opportunities for compelling and complex ideas. But as executed here they aren’t quite round enough for their separate attributes to coalesce into whole characters. Combined with the unlikely and unsatisfying arc of a romance between a 20-year-old boy and a 30-year-old man, the human element of OLIVER AND HENRY is an unfortunate weakness.
Like its characters, Michael Hartwig’s OLIVER AND HENRY has strong attributes that give it sufficient interest for readers of travel narrative, art history, queer romance–or even political thrillers or family drama.
~Dan Accardi for IndieReader