Leading Men

  • 2019
  • Viking
  • ISBN: ISBN 978-0-525-55905-4
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A "Books of the Times" Selection
A Los Angeles Times Bestseller
An IndieNext Pick for February 2019
Soon to be a major motion picture written by Tony-nominated writer Matthew López (The Inheritance) and produced by Luca Guadagnino and Peter Spears (Call Me By Your Name, Nomadland)

An expansive yet intimate story of desire, artistic ambition, and fidelity, set in the glamorous literary and film circles of 1950s Italy

In July of 1953, at a glittering party thrown by Truman Capote in Portofino, Italy, Tennessee Williams and his longtime lover Frank Merlo meet Anja Blomgren, a mysteriously taciturn young Swedish beauty and aspiring actress. Their encounter will go on to alter all of their lives.

Ten years later, Frank revisits the tempestuous events of that fateful summer from his deathbed in Manhattan, where he waits anxiously for Tennessee to visit him one final time. Anja, now legendary film icon Anja Bloom, lives as a recluse in the present-day U.S. until a young man connected to the events of 1953 lures her reluctantly back into the spotlight after he discovers she possesses the only copy of Williams's unknown final play—written especially for her.

What keeps two people together and what breaks them apart? Can we save someone else if we can't save ourselves? Like The Master and The Hours, Leading Men seamlessly weaves fact and fiction to navigate the tensions between public figures and their private lives. In an ultimately heartbreaking story about the burdens of fame and the complex negotiations of life in the shadows of greatness, Castellani creates an unforgettable leading lady in Anja Bloom and reveals the hidden machinery of one of the great literary love stories of the twentieth-century.

Other editions

Leading Men is available in the United Kingdom, France (as Les Diables Bleus), and Poland. A large-print edition is also available in English.

Praise for Leading Men

"Blazing...casts a spell right from the start. [Leading Men] vividly reimagines the relationship between Williams and Frank Merlo, and offers intricate thoughts about the nature of fidelity, the artistic impulse, and estrangement... [Castellani's] scenes glitter... This book is a kind of poem in praise of pleasure. Its author knows a great deal about life; better, he knows how to express what he knows. But this is an alert, serious, sweeping novel. To hold it in your hands is like holding, to crib a line from Castellani, a front-row opera ticket." Dwight Garner, The New York Times

"Dazzling... [Castellani writes] with an evocative precision that historical fiction often merely aspires to." Entertainment Weekly

"Castellani's spectacular fourth novel... hits the trifecta of being moving, beautifully written, and a bona fide page-turner. This is a wonderful examination of artists and the people who love them and change their work in large and imperceptible ways." Publishers Weekly (Starred)

"Castellani... [injects] the book with a gravitas and a precariousness that recalls the authorial finesse of his own character, Tennessee Williams, harnessing a talent not only for forming tragic heroes, but allowing them to exhibit the kind of complexity that remains utterly real to readers, that mix of ambition and ambivalence that so often suggests the self who remains unknown to us, the parts of us which we ourselves cannot account for." Chris Campanioni, Brooklyn Rail

"Real and imagined lives collide as Tennessee Williams and his longtime love Frank Merlo befriend a young Swedish woman named Anja on the glittering Italian Riviera in 1953. Though entirely fictional, the enigmatic Anja, who goes on to reluctant fame and fortune as an actress, propels this story of desire, ambition and heartbreak." People

"Leading Men is a finely-rendered narrative . . . broad in scope and lush in detail, without every tipping into sentimentality. [A] compassionate snapshot of a bygone era and a beautiful, if tragic, story of love and remembrance." Lambda Literary

"Castellani's quiet portrait of Merlo has a deep, aching appeal...[his] prose has a beguiling lilt and color, whether he's evoking his characters' evasive or erratic emotions, or conjuring the far-flung locales where these globe-hoppers touch down. There's a felicitous uncertainty, too, in the central issue that unseen Williams play raises: Who has final say on the legacy we leave behind? And who has final word on how we're remembered? Leading Men doesn't deliver answers—but it's seductive in the way it raises its questions." The Boston Globe

"Gorgeous and sweeping . . . [a] sumptuous work of historical fiction . . . Leading Men manages to capture the lightning of these massive artistic figures on the page with such force, it does feel as if you have tiptoed around Williams’s desk in Rome while he was busy writing a masterpiece" Christopher Bollen, Interview

"With imagination and feeling, Castellani reconjures history to reveal the intricate dynamics—loving and passionate, selfless and devastating—among artists and those who nurture them." Booklist

"This is a tale of love and loneliness, the personal costs of genius and its attendant fame, and of the ultimate, inconsolable pain of loss. In its depiction of Americans in Europe, its closest literary cousin might be F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night." Library Journal

"A moving story of love, loss, memory, and regret...Leading Men is a transporting adventure." Shelf Awareness

"An intriguing take on Tennessee Williams and his lover of 15 years, Frank Merlo . . . Humane, witty, and bold, this novel imagines the life of a loving but tortured couple." Kirkus Reviews

"Recreates the glamour of the 1950s while deftly portraying a timeless and heartbreaking love story." Celeste Ng, author of Little Fires Everywhere

"I read Christopher Castellani's Leading Men in one quiet, sunny, rapt afternoon, and spent hours afterwards just stunned from having been immersed in such a tender, psychologically devastating and gorgeously precise novel. This is an extraordinary book." Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies

"Leading Men is glorious, a meditation on the ravages of fame, an investigation into the private lives of public artists, and one of the most moving love stories I've read in ages. It's hard to imagine better company on the page than Tennessee Williams and those who loved and loathed him. By bringing to life these literary visionaries, Christopher Castellani proves himself their eminently worthy heir." Anthony Marra, author of The Tsar of Love and Techno

"With echoes of Tender is the Night and The Sun Also Rises, Leading Men tells the extraordinary love story of Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo. Castellani elegantly weaves together Merlo's final days with memories of a dramatic (and delicious) Italian summer in 1953 that changes his world forever. Throw in an aging Swedish actress, Truman Capote, Italian cinema and the staging (and script!) of a lost Williams play and you have all the ingredients for a literary page-turner. Leading Men is about fame and love and forgiveness, about the ravages of time, and how we try to lay claim to the future, while the present slips through our fingers." Hannah Tinti, author of The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

"Leading Men is a daredevil of a novel, like the prettiest boy in the gay bar doing a backflip off a stool and not spilling his drink. Castellani has set his eye on that ineffable profane that is the other face of the divine, in a novel that unites my obsessions with Tennessee Williams, Luchino Visconti, Truman Capote, film, cruising, and Italy, and wraps it up in a love story, but a story of old love--love of a kind we almost never see written." Alexander Chee, author of The Queen of the Night

"With extraordinary artistry and grace, Christopher Castellani interweaves history and invention to show us both the depths great artists are driven to and the love that draws them back. I know of few books that give such a moving account of the indispensable value of genius and its intolerable human cost. This is a novel of rare insight and beauty, and Castellani is a writer of brilliant gifts." Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You

"Leading Men is a novel as moving as it is entertaining, a book that restored my faith in the old cliché that only through fiction—by exploring the possibilities of what might have happened—can we reach the truth. Christopher Castellani has written an astounding novel of great imaginative empathy that, by the end, had this cynic weeping." Peter Orner, author of Love and Shame and Love

"Leading Men stirs up the kind of beautiful trouble we admire in the work of Tennessee Williams. A clever, allusive, multi-layered novel filled with wit, insight, and heart. I loved it." Justin Torres, author of We The Animals

"Lyrical, restrained, and affecting. This is a book to savor." Taylor Jenkins-Reid, author of Daisy Jones and the Six