Shakespeare's Sonnets - Samuel Park

The time is 1948. Adam Greenhurst is a student at Harvard with dreams of becoming a literary scholar. He’s from a rich and influential family and has become engaged to the perfect girl. His life plan is set, until he’s busted by campus police for having sex with another man in a public place.

Threatened with expulsion, Adam refocuses his energies on a new class about Shakespeare’s sonnets. There he meets Jean Hoffman, a man with whom Adam shares much: love of language and love of men. As their relationship grows, Adam realizes he will have to make a choice: the life his family planned for him, or the life his heart wants.

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Jean & Adam meet in a drama class at Harvard. Jean is immediately infatuated with Adam, but Adam, though intrigued by Jean, is hesitant to challenge his picture-perfect life setup -- the perfect girl, the fast track to academic accolades and a nearly guaranteed professorship.

 

 

Jean knows that Adam has studied Shakespeare's Sonnets extensively, so Jean studies them himself to try to bond with Adam. Jean, through his reading of not only the sonnets but also The Portrait of Mr. W.H. by Oscar Wilde, latches onto the theory that Shakespeare wrote his famous sonnets to a male lover. Jean then uses this idea to woo Adam... and it works! Jean shows himself pretty damn smooth, setting up a date with Adam on the stage of Harvard's theater, and in Shakespearan style, tells Adam:

 

"We are players, both of us, and tonight, to ourselves, we're true."

"What if someone sees us?" (Adam asks right before their first kiss)

"They'll be terribly jealous. Nothing is quite as upsetting as seeing strangers happy."

 

Pimp, Jean, Pimp! Wilde would be proud :-) Though Adam starts to open his heart to Jean, and allows the relationship to become deeply intimate and physical, he still struggles with the fear that his love for Jean will ruin him socially if word gets out. When he confesses as much to Jean, Jean's response took my breath away. It's so stunningly simple yet powerful.

 

"You are so free and emancipated and able to do whatever you want," said Adam, "But do you know why you're free? Because nobody expect anything from you. Because what you do doesn't really matter to anyone."

The two men looked at one another. It was one of the side effects of intimacy; naked with one another, they had become transparent, reflecting truth in one another's eyes. By revealing yourself to another human being, you always run the risk of being revealed to yourself. And yet, Jean knew where this attack was coming from.

"Adam," he began, "There's nothing wrong with you. And you don't need other people to tell you that."

"You who never had it, will never know what it's like to lose it," said Adam, calmly, more of an explanation than an attack.

"No. Only I, who never had it, know that you can live without it."

 

WOW! Powerful as it struck me though, Jean soon realizes that while one might not need the world's approval, that doesn't change the fact that one often wants it. He comes to understand this so well that he begins to fear his part in Adam potentially losing this social respect Jean silently craves. One day he breaks and confesses to Adam:

 

You think I look down on your friends, and your club, and your status -- I don't. I understand why you cling to those things, because -- those are things I would like to have myself. I would like to be like you. To matter. To have people toast me and cheer my name. And I can't let you lose all that. 

 

Earlier this year I read Park's more recent novel, This Burns My Heart, and loved it so much that I was eager to read anything else he had written, leading me to discover this book. SO glad I did! Park's writing has such a glow to it  -- I can only hope my own writing could come close to this one day. Jean and Adam made such a lovely couple -- and I could actually see them as a couple! So many literary romances these days are so rushed and syrup-sweet, it was refreshing to find a couple that didn't trigger my gag reflex from over-schmoopiness!  

 

I chuckled a bit reading the final pages because the sacrifices Jean and Adam started to sound very Gift Of The Magi-ish, which really made me feel for them. I've read some reviews saying the closing scene of this story is too picture-perfect but I personally found it to be a just-right place for the curtain to fall on a beautiful relationship. The letter Jean writes imagining his future with Adam is especially poetic. I closed the book imagining great lives for those two, full of lots of laughs and "you and me against the world" moments. 

 

**For anyone interested, Samuel Park did a short film version of this story. It's not easily available in the US. It appears that it was once on Youtube but was taken down. I haven't seen it but did discover that it is included in a compilation of LGBT short films under the title Boys Briefs 3, available on Netflix. 

 

UPDATE: Also found that you can watch the short film online here