Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall
by James Magruder
Chelsea Station Editions
Reviewed by John Francis Leonard
Five graduate students, their assorted friends and lovers, and a self-described “Protoplasmic emanation from a portrait in oils” are living in the ghost’s eponymous residence at Yale, Helen Hadley Hall. Helen, our narrator and host and the subject of a portrait in the hall’s entrance, recounts the adventures of her favorite class, that of the 1983, ’84 school year, with love and sensitivity and a bemused and watchful eye. Being 1983, and that her male favorites are mostly gay or at least bi, AIDS is at the forefront of all their minds. There were 3,500 recorded cases of individuals with AIDS that year, half of whom had died. To some characters, the realities of the plague seem far removed from their day-to-day lives, hours away in urban centers and among much older men than they. One protagonist smirks: “I’m too young to get it. And when I find the right guy to settle down with, we’ll only have sex with each other.” Never mind that he’s currently on his forty-eighth sexual conquest.
AIDS serves to put the piece into context, but it’s not what drives the novel’s clever and fast-moving plot. This is a sparkling comedy of errors built on sharp and witty dialogue and banter that manages to ring quite authentic. Its characters speak and interact the way that young, Ivy League graduate students of the decade would. Helen Hadley may have been an Edwardian heiress in a mariage blanc, but the students whose lives she follows have kept her current and relevant. Magruder draws a compelling portrait of characters, both male and female, who are all too human and frail. As in life, imbroglio don’t always come with a happy ending, but they always come with hard won lessons learned. Accounts of the plague dealing with the men hardest hit, those above thirty, abound in literature. But this novel provides us with a younger perspective from young men living outside of the urban gay ghettos. It’s a unique and clever tale of sex and love from the perspective of the young.
John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for thirteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.