3 out of 4 stars
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As a young boy, Simon fantasized that he came from the faraway planet Zenon. That was because he had strange desires which were different from those of his friends. Even at ten, he was attracted to boys. At eighteen, he decided to abandon his Christian faith and his small-town life and join the Moonies, thinking that their Unification Church will cure him of his “queerness.” However, even after marrying the bride Reverend Moon chose for him, Simon felt the same. Opting to accept his sexual identity, he left Moon’s church and moved to Hollywood, flourishing in a career in film distribution. That’s where he met Thad who became the love of his life. They had a tumultuous relationship, though, for both were addicted to cocaine.
Both Simon and Thad had undergone rehab and are now living (and loving) together in Simon’s childhood home, a timber mansion built before the Civil War. The mansion will once more witness Simon’s life-changing experiences. His mother Vivian, already widowed for many years, convinces Simon to go back to painting, a childhood passion. He also decides to complete his college degree in art while continuing his film distribution business. He is unable to expand the business, though, as he fears being tracked by a former client whom he has aggrieved unintentionally. Thad, having found a job in Hollywood dubbing films, is away for weeks at a time, leaving Simon to wrestle with loneliness and the temptation of cocaine. Simon’s older sister and her husband, as well as Vivian’s relatives, continue to press Simon to go back to Jesus. Simon is no longer open to religion, or is he? Thad is himself an atheist. Will Simon and Thad find peace and happiness in the mansion?
Simon’s Mansion by William Poe is a stunning portrayal of the life of a gay man raised in the conservative rural town of Sibley, Arkansas. We journey along with Simon as a child ridiculed by his bigoted father Lenny and as an adult haunted by his being different. This is the third installment in a series of books featuring Simon, but the reader will not find the story difficult to follow. The author uses flashbacks successfully to give the reader insights about the past. Though there are many participants in the story, all are important and help the reader understand Simon’s choices and fears. Most of the characters are gay, and the reader who doesn’t want to know gay people better should give the book a wide berth. Also, there are several pages devoted to the discussion of religion, mostly in a negative light. Nonetheless, even as a straight person who happens to be Catholic, I found the book thoroughly captivating.
The writing was deliciously poetic. Poe vividly described the mansion and its eerie interior (including the gallery of frowning ancestors looking down from their portraits) and surroundings. He created fascinating images of the pond, the red oak where the family patriarch was hanged for harboring a wounded Union soldier, the adjacent family cemetery, and the ancient wisteria reaching up to Simon’s room, his escape route as a child. I also enjoyed the antics of the dog, Cicero, and the goat, Ferdinand, who gave the story the needed comic relief. However, I was not a fan of the overly long sentences which the author had a fondness for. The characters’ thoughts were also not delineated, causing a little confusion. I likewise found grammatical lapses that added up, but none were distracting to me as an entranced reader.
The focus on gay relationships (although none of the intimate scenes are markedly lurid), the controversial comments about Christian beliefs, the frequent mention of cocaine, and the discussion of porn films make this book suitable for a mature audience. The same themes may also turn some readers away. I found the book refreshingly real, though, and appreciate the new learnings it provided me especially relative to the gay life. I will not be surprised if some of the events narrated therein were taken from the author’s experiences.
This thought-provoking story also has a suspenseful subplot. That exciting detour is one of my favorite parts. The ending is totally unexpected and leaves the characters and the reader in a daze. What comes next? I believe a fourth book is in order.
I only wish the author could address the few negatives noted for the book to clinch the perfect rating I so want to give it. Unfortunately, I can only rate it 3 out of 4 stars for now.
Let me end with a quote from the book which made me think long and hard; in fact, I am still grappling with my thoughts until now. “If God is love, how can some love be wrong?”
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