The House of Impossible Beauties: Review
“You have a delicate soul and it’s beautiful and you no let nobody tell you wrong.”
I understand that by writing this review I am altering potential readers’ experiences of the book. I like to go into books knowing almost nothing, and so I skim summaries. It was not immediately obvious how much sadness this book contained, and although a moment eventually came when I realized this is a sad AIDs book, I am glad the sadness caught me off guard. I wouldn’t have picked up the book otherwise. But by the time I was sad, I was too emotionally connected to the characters to stop reading.
She would have to learn how to live in the world after the man she loved was dead.
Every character—drug addicts, prostitutes, runaways—carries a head full of sweet and beautiful thoughts. You are mad that they need to live in the real world; that there isn’t a softer, paradisal planet they can go to, just for them to enjoy together.
These were so many heartbreaking and touching moments: That a young, abused transgender girl chooses her name, “Venus,” because she sees it on a magazine. Throughout the book, she learns that Venus is the name of a planet, and also a god, but she doesn’t learn what god.
I felt so much of this book down to my core. Small, complicated moments that felt so real—places fiction doesn’t typically go. There was the setting, all the New York I know. Even though I might not have everything in common with these characters, there were so many familiar moments, like walking into Saks on Fifth Avenue just to pretend for a day you could conceivably shop there, and then feeling the burning self-consciousness of knowing that everyone there knows you don’t belong.
I remember taking the 90 minute two-transfer-trains-and-a-bus commute home to my cockroach-infested apartment and my roommate who hit her drug dealing boyfriend and being exhausted to my bones, looking out at the view on the subway, the glorious sunset splashing on the skyscrapers at the edge of the river, and feeling like it was worth it. Today, I live alone in a beautiful neighborhood close to my job for half of the rent and I don’t feel like New York City is remotely worth it. New York City is a scam for poor people. But I still relate to these characters who think it is the center of the universe.
Author Joseph Cassara didn’t live during in AIDs era, but his mix of historical research and psychological realism had me convinced he had been there after all. Interestingly, his introduction to the era was the same as mine: the documentary Paris Is Burning, about the crossdressing scene of AIDs-era New York.
Even though Cassara didn’t live during the era, he humanizes the experience, broadens our empathy, in the same way Octavia Butler made slavery feel realer with Kindred, or colonization feel realer with Lilith’s Brood, even though she herself had never directly experienced those things.
Cassara says, “I didn’t want it to just be tragedy porn. I didn’t want it to feel exploitative. I really wanted the novel to feel deeply human, and how do you do that? You show them falling in love, laughing, you explore their dreams and we understand why they have those dreams and what those dreams mean to them, especially how they feel if they’re denied those dreams.
When I think about the lives of the actual people involved, the people that the book is based on, they died so young and that feels so unfair to me. A lot of the book is still speculation because there are a lot of gaps in history, but I wanted to, in a fictional way, pay tribute to them by capturing their lives because I don’t want any part of Queer history to ever be lost or erased.”
It’s been weeks and I’m still touched. Still thinking of Angel on her subway, clinging to a pole and closing her eyes and feeling the strangers brushing against her skin, trying to feel a little less alone.