Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
Archaeology student Stanley Sternbaum has finally decided to live on his own, a fact his mother is not happy about. Needing something reasonable yet close the college where he is pursuing his masters, Stanley finds an opening at the Belladonna Arms, a rundown little apartment building perched atop a hill in downtown San Diego. Sure it’s the “penthouse apartment”, up a gazillion steps that no one else wants and the apartment manager is a huge aging flaming drag queen named Arthur. In fact everyone at the Belladonna Arms is gay, eccentric, living life on the edge or sometimes just plan lost. It’s hot, kind of seedy but it would be all his so Stanley rents it immediately.
But painfully shy Stanley is not prepared to find the man of his dreams living just below him. Fellow tenant Roger Jane is a gorgeous nurse at the local hospital and he is everything Stanley has always dreamed about. But when Roger seems interested in Stanley, Stanley shrinks into his shell, hiding in his apartment, and avoiding Roger as well as all the other tenants in his building. Stanley’s poor self image and debilitating shyness is behind his self imposed isolation. And because of that Stanley is constantly rebuffing the invitations from Roger to go out. He just can’t believe Roger would be interested in him. Stanley’s innate kindness will prove his undoing when little by little the other renters draw him into their lives. Slowly Stanley emerges from his shell but is it too late for Roger who has been waiting all this time for Stanley?
I have only recently found John Inman but he quickly became a must read author for me because of his humor and quixotic characters. Serenading Stanley certainly contains all the elements I have come to expect from a John Inman story and perhaps just that much more. Stanley Sternbaum is painfully shy, dominated by his mother, and unaware of just how cute he is. He is kind, thoughtful and intelligent, but years of living with his mother and his father’s early disappearance from his life, has left Stanley so shy, so emotionally stunted, that he would rather spend his time in the past and the long dead than with the living. The character of Stanley is a personable young man and as the story is told from his pov, we get to know him far better than he knows himself, a wonderful aspect of Serenading Stanley and due totally to John Inman’s amazing storytelling and gift with characterization.
The novel has quite a cast of characters in addition to Stanley. Inman has the Belladonna Arms crammed full of the strange, the beautiful, the edgy and the outrageous and any combination thereof. And yet, although some of them teeter on the brink of stereotype, there is still so much beguiling humanity to be found with each and every one of them that we care what happens to them unconditionally. These characters are created with affection. And even in the most humorous and undignified situations, they remain realistically human and defiantly brave. How could you not care about their future and their happiness?
There is the obese Arthur, a flamboyant drag queen who runs the Belladonna and tries to run everyones life. The fragile and exquisite Sylvia, the trans who desperately needs to complete her transition, Chi Chi the beginner hairdresser with more enthusiasm than talent, Ramon, the leather boy/masseuse who can’t escape trouble, and all the rest, including the gorgeous Roger whose beautiful facade few people can get past to the person underneath. Even Stanley’s mother who does barely escape caricature turns recognizably real towards the end, earning our understanding and compassion with her actions and words. I loved them all. But no matter how great your characters, it’s the story they inhabit that must grab your heart and Serenading Stanley does that and more.
Inman takes his time creating the edifice for his plot. Slowly different characters and their life stories appear to buffet the walls Stanley has built around himself. Each neighbor’s needs, impositions, banging on his door interruptions of Stanley’s studies brings the shy man closer to becoming part of the swirling melting pot of life that is the Belladonna Arms. It’s slow, with missteps to match Stanley’s painful steps forward. There is laughter, and tears and quite a bit of gnashing of teeth as we watch Stanley’s isolation crack and then shatter as he welcomes friends and love into his life. It’s a well rounded story and Stanley’s not perfect, so there are times you will be quite frustrated with the narration. But really, its with Stanley and his refusal to be hurt that causes the reader the most pain and finally the most joy as he gets it together and moves forward in love.
I definitely recommend Serenading Stanley and its author, John Inman. I loved Shy, Loving Hector, and Hobbled, and now add Serenading Stanley to my list of must reads. Add some humor and love to your reading list with John Inman’s stories starting with Serenading Stanley, you won’t be sorry.
This is how it starts out:
THE sign hung crooked atop the six-story apartment building. It read “BELLADONNA ARMS.” The sign was rendered on a rusty metal frame with old-timey neon tubing, and nothing looks tackier in the daylight than old-timey neon tubing on a rusty metal frame. Stuck in the dead grass by the front steps leading up to the entrance of the apartment building was another sign. This one was handwritten on a slab of cardboard and stapled to a wooden stake pounded into the ground. The lettering on this sign was rendered in pink Magic Marker. It read “VACANCY.” And under that, this time scrawled in magenta Magic Marker and sprinkled liberally with glitter, were the words “TO APPLY PLEASE BE CUTE.”
Cover art by Aaron Anderson. This cover leaves me a little cold. It’s surprisingly drab considering the colorful Belladonna Arms and the people who live there. And where is the notorious pink sign saying only the cute should apply? A definite miss in design and tone.