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GROUP CHALLENGE REVIEW: “The Charioteer” by Mary Renault

The Boys in our Books team attempts taking on an epic historical novel…during the heat of the lazy summer. How’d we do? Check out our Group Challenge Review of “The Charioteer” by Mary Renault.

After enduring an injury at Dunkirk during World War II, Laurie Odell is sent to a rural veterans’ hospital in England to convalesce. There he befriends the young, bright Andrew, a conscientious objector serving as an orderly. As they find solace and companionship together in the idyllic surroundings of the hospital, their friendship blooms into a discreet, chaste romance. Then one day, Ralph Lanyon, a mentor from Laurie’s schoolboy days, suddenly reappears in Laurie’s life, and draws him into a tight-knit social circle of world-weary gay men. Laurie is forced to choose between the sweet ideals of innocence and the distinct pleasures of experience.

Originally published in the United States in 1959, The Charioteer is a bold, unapologetic portrayal of male homosexuality during World War II that stands with Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar and Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories as a monumental work in gay literature.


So…this might have been a bit ambitious for our team. We’d all heard of this book. We’d all seen the amazing rating. We’d all signed up for another of our Group Challenge Reads…some loving the thought of reading a historical romance, others dreading it. 10 members of our team agreed to take the challenge. That narrowed down to 6 actually starting the book. That funneled into 2 actually finishing it.

What happened? Well, summer happened. Holidays, trips, reading funks, the sun…and a gung ho team dwindled down to just two lone soldiers. Sheri, our resident “I really, really don’t like historicals” reader and Ilhem, our tried-and-true “I’ll read anything as long as it’s great writing” reviewer. Two opposite ends of the spectrum going in. So, how did “The Charioteer” do?



I’m deeply disappointed in myself, but I can’t do this one. I feel like I’m reading in a foreign language, and a boring one at that. Sorry team! :(


I’m with Jenni. Sorry guys, but the ambiance and writing style is putting me to sleep. :/


I feel like I’m back in Mr Morey’s english class and we should be pausing to analyze and interpret each sentence. *head desk*


You’re scaring me.


Good gracious…this is torture.


It is settled, I’m a boring old goat. Don’t throw tomatoes, okay? I like it very much so far.


I think the writing is gorgeous in an objective way. But for some reason, it isn’t grabbing my attention. Kind of like how I can look at a super hot guy, but for some reason can’t imagine myself nekkid with them (doesn’t happen too often, though).


There are moments that are quite breathtaking, but they seem to be few & far between.

I’m up to 30%…which feels like a great accomplishment because I’ve read everything ( at least) twice. Usually the first time slips through my fingers… occasionally it takes three * ahem* or four attempts before it sticks. “/


What was that Sheri? I can’t hear you over the grunting sounds of the fictional gay, raunchy sex I’m reading right now.


Oh I’m reading twice and more too!

*hands on Sheri’s ears*

*kicks the door in Xing’s face*


I’ve been having a really hard time with The Charioteer. One moment I’m ABSOLUTELY ADORING IT and the next I’m frustrated or bored. There are passages that leave me breathless from their careful construction – yet others are so overtly complicated that it almost seems wasteful and extravagant. Not sure if anyone else feels that way. *shrugs*

I feel that this book is really quite remarkable…

I adore it. I love it, but I can’t stand it. I want to be patient and enjoy it, but I can’t. It’s kind of like the problem with the 21st century… We’ re always in such a damn rush…Fast food, fast cars, devastating books with fine details that are made into movies which we inhale within an hour or two, commercials which tell us what we want and sell it to us within 30 seconds. While this book tells us every detail, strings us along and takes its time.

I’m done. *sobs*


*looks left*

*looks right*

psstttt, Ilhem, where’d everybody go?


It looks like everybody left the ship. :D


And then there were two….

Here we are, trying to review this book… And it feels like it is an impossible task to gather our thoughts and write anything shorter than an essay to cover a story that is anything but simple. This Q & A will hopefully be simple and straight to the point, if not exhaustive.


Sticking with simple, if you could stamp ONE word on this book, what would it be?


arduous: hard to endure; full of hardships; severe.

Uhhh, yeah. That nails it. It wasn’t necessarily that it was heavy, though it required great exertion. It wasn’t because it was foreign, yet this is written in a language of its very own. Nor was it merely the fact it was ambiguous, it was as crystal as mud.

It was just so damn…hard.

Hard to love and hard to hate. I’m actually quite bothered by the fact that I can’t hate it. I really want to hate it.


Arborescence, because that’s how it makes our mind work in order to jump from one idea to another, to follow all the tracks, to ponder over them, to keep track of them all and try to have an overall idea of what it is all about besides a basic triangle love story. No. Scratch that. It’s a constellation. Once you squint at the stars in a certain way, they stop being isolated shining points and they draw invisible lines that form a shape. Laurie, Andrew, the deep sense of self, the unrelenting struggle to stay true to oneself and to make honorable choices, social isolation, emotional loneliness, youth, pain, love, war, the untold, its burden: they shape The Charioteer.

I’m sure I missed some, it took time, a patience and a state of mind I’m not used to anymore, the shape is flickering while I’m trying to keep a hold on it,   but it’s as beautiful and captivating as it can be hard work.

Ah, that makes two words. I might have cheated. :)


Okay, what was your least favorite part?


For me- the dialogue *bangs head* was frankly, a bitch. The first hundred pages I ran to Wikipedia nearly every paragraph. Nothing was precise. Nothing was to the point. Nothing was straightforward. Wispy and vague and you’re lucky if you catch it the third time through. I often felt moronic and was forced to read it in slow motion. Super secret-squirrel code that I wasn’t privy to. Ohh and to top it off, I’m SO not a fan of historicals.


Afterwards, none. There’s a scene I frowned upon, because I found that the author’s look on people who are not fighters and the gay community in general as a defensive tool only was a little harsh even if it held some truths. I still find it harsh and partial, but I wasn’t there, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a glimpse at a very strong woman who was nonetheless capable of compassion, who favored individual development and rejected vigorously the idea of anyone being defined by their sexual orientation and shut out of society to be relegated with people they don’t necessarily have a common point with, besides said sexual orientation. I’ve had an animated debate with myself about community versus communautarism that made my head spin!

Also, the ending is abrupt and took me by surprise. I was taken aback by the conclusion, I even judged a bit, but Renault’s final words moved me deeply. They hold so much compassion, so much emotion and they give this story a brand new light…I’ve reread them a dozen times, and in the end, I’m content with this HFN.


Ha! This was a HFN for me as well, but mine was Hell F*cking No. It’s a miracle my kindle survived this book.

I am not lying when I tell you I looked for the ‘actual’ ending half a dozen times. I thought for sure my copy was missing the last page. I was stunned and then livid at the ending. After my temper (yes, I threw a genuine temper tantrum) simmered, I realized the ending was a gift. I appreciate the beauty now, but not at the time.

Which I suppose leads to….


Your favorite part~


Her words. It’s not that I didn’t need to read them twice and more, but I reread them as much to examine them from every angle and understand, as to taste them and savour and feed on them. They’re thoughts that sting and push and shake up and send you on tangents, and they’re pure beauty, pure reader-joy. Obscure sometimes, yes, but even then, they’re telling the heavy burden of being unable to be open, the discomfort and insecurity in being forced to always guess.


As much as I despised the ending, I also cherished it. It was one of the most maddening books I’ve ever read with an exasperating conclusion. I felt as if everything was floating above my head and despite constant reaching, desperate jumping, and tearful pleas, it continued to elude me. I refused to let it get the better of me, so I went back and read and read and read till I grasped enough to put the pieces together.

This is what I loved- Putting the pieces together. It may have a few holes here and there, but I can see it.

My final picture is my own. The treasure at the end of the hunt was powerful and rewarding.


Rating? What’s the final verdict?


I cannot, in good conscious, recommend this book. But hold on a second! It was rather painful, yet I feel a sense of pride having accomplished this feat. I shall add this badge of honor…slip it next to my Special Forces badge, which was also obtained through a steep laborious road (please note, this is where all similarities cease)

It is one of those hard-earned, powerful and equally tortuous reads that you can never take away from me.

At times it fell below 2 stars and then soared above 4….I’ll meet in the middle with 3 stars.

Three demanding, frustrating, impressive, and hard-won stars.


5 stars without any doubt.

Honestly, I can’t guess who will like it or not. I truly feel like I’ve been rewarded a hundredfold, but it’s undeniable that it’s a slow read that doesn’t make it easy for you. I’d recommend it to historical fans and to people who like reading between the lines perhaps. It is not to be enjoyed at all costs because it is a classic; it doesn’t matter if you let go of a few tracks or if you give up, or even end up hating it, but I think that it’s worth a try.



RATING: 3 STARS (Sheri) / 5 STARS (Ilhem)


417C40Z2DCL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Title: The Charioteer

Author: Mary Renault
Publisher: Open Road Media (2nd Edition)
Pages: 352
Release Date:  September 10, 2013 (May 13, 2003 originally)
Purchase Links: Amazon

13 comments on “GROUP CHALLENGE REVIEW: “The Charioteer” by Mary Renault

  1. Jenni
    August 25, 2014

    So proud of you two for making it all the way! Way to go, soldiers! ;-)

    Liked by 1 person

    • ilhem3606
      August 25, 2014

      *fist bump*


      • Sheri
        August 25, 2014

        *hip bump*


  2. Allie
    August 25, 2014

    I read this a long time ago, and as your reviews suggest, it is a book that sticks in the mind.

    I wonder whether the things which the reviewers found difficult, the uncertainties and obscurities of the language and the issues with the ending, are a part of providing an accurate reflection of the difficulties of the times in which the book is set., a part of the essential literary truth of the story being told. It does mean that the book requires some effort on the part of the reader, rather than being the easy entertainment which is so available to us now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • ilhem3606
      August 25, 2014

      Absolutely. I’m convinced that we were exactly where she wanted us to be, and it is a hard work on ourselves both to forget what we’re used to, and to accept being confused while trying to puzzle things out.

      Liked by 1 person

      • gaycrow
        August 25, 2014

        I have to say that there were things I missed when I first read TC. I still loved the book, but it wasn’t until I joined a Live Journal discussion community that I learned quite a few things, and understood much of what had been confusing. It really enhanced my enjoyment of Mary Renault’s writing style.


  3. gaycrow
    August 25, 2014

    “The Charioteer” is one of my all time favourite books.

    I need to add that I read this very early on, when I’d just discovered gay fiction. Since then I’ve read hundreds of gay and m/m stories, many of which are enjoyable, but nowhere nearly as well written as TC. I liken it to a fine dining experience compared to take-away. I love take-away food! But the fine dining experience can stay with me for a lot longer (and is much rarer).

    Maybe if I’d started off differently in my reading journey, and then started to read TC, I would’ve found it difficult, boring, and not worth the effort of continuing. I’m really glad, though, that it didn’t happen that way. :)

    Liked by 4 people

    • Sheri
      August 25, 2014

      I can certainly see your comparison….fine dining indeed!
      I believe I began with such a disadvantage (truly, this era is lovely, but I find it highly bothersome in books) and then yes, I found it boring.
      I can handle confusing…I love puzzles.
      I don’t mind foreign languages (this was a complete foreign language to me)
      BUT, I need some excitement to counterbalance my frustrations.
      I was frustrated with Laurie, I was frustrated with Dave, I was frustrated with Bunny (okay, I wanted to punch Bunny) and I was frustrated with the ‘expectations’ of the era. Beautiful as the writing was….it was a bloody miracle I finished sane.
      My husband raised a lot of eyebrows at me grumbling, cursing and the yelling at my kindle.
      I can see how it can be a timeless favorite, but alas, it was not for me.
      I’m so glad you read it on the beginning of your journey as well.
      It IS special…and deserves to be loved.

      Liked by 2 people

    • ilhem3606
      August 26, 2014

      I’d love to read those discussions!


      • gaycrow
        August 26, 2014

        Are you familiar with Live Journal? You’d need to have an account to join the community. Membership is moderated. Here’s the link to the community profile: http://maryrenaultfics.livejournal.com/profile

        If you’re able to join, you can check the tags to find the discussion. :)


        • ilhem3606
          August 26, 2014

          Thank you. :)


  4. katinka
    September 7, 2014

    This has turned out to be an interesting experience, ha! I think, like Gaycrow mentions, that it’s like comparing fine dining to junk food. It’s probably more difficult to enjoy a classic like this one when you’re used to the quick and vaguely satisfying snacks the genre mostly offers. Lately I try to intersperse my quick reads with more demanding ones again, because I felt like I was missing something? Burning out on the genre perhaps? It works miracles. The combination of caviar and candy bars rocks!

    Blah, in short: great joint review! I’m happy that you loved it, Ilhem. And Sheri, you’re a trooper for pushing on.;)


    • ilhem3606
      September 7, 2014

      Yes. After being an exclusive glutton for 2 years, I’m finding like you that I need both.


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This entry was posted on August 25, 2014 by in Historical, Reviewer: GROUP and tagged , , .

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