James Magruder introduces us to a group of Yale graduate students living and loving in Helen Hadley Hall in the early 1980s. Magruder’s “Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall” is a predominantly gay sex comedy haunted by the specter of AIDS.
The book’s narrator — Helen Hadley herself — is also haunting the book and its characters. While Helen Hadley Hall is a real Yale dormitory, Magruder has fictionalized Hadley’s biography and cast her as the otherworldly observer and chronicler of the lusty misadventures of the students.
Magruder’s book calls to mind Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” series. Like Maupin’s work, “Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall” centers on a shared residence and its diverse population driven by various sorts of longing. Set about five years after the first entry in Maupin’s series, “Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall” is something of an East Coast companion to Maupin’s stories of San Francisco.
The ensemble cast is well drawn, and Magruder engenders sympathy for even the least sympathetic of his characters as his narrator reveals foibles and contradictions with fondness rather than judgement. Droll and engaging, Helen Hadley unfurls her tale in erudite language befitting the graduate programs at an Ivy League university.
Two of the novel’s central characters hail from Iowa, and Magruder uses the state for its stereotypical purpose — as a place lacking in sophistication from which one escapes to find one’s destiny. But even this is handled with gentle humor. Local readers might roll their eyes, but are unlikely to take umbrage.
The book’s ending is a well-crafted reminder of the steep cost of the AIDS epidemic. Magruder doesn’t belabor the tragedy or allow it to upend the carefully constructed tone of the rest of the novel. But he doesn’t let us look away, either. The book’s ending is somber and yet perfectly in keeping with all that has come before.