Grief is a novel primarily written for a gay readership. Those who understand aspects of gay life can best understand the humor, ironies, and the human touch of this novel. Many gay male readers will nod knowingly at some of the references to fashion, sex clubs, the snobbery of the young, the obsession of the middle-aged with the young and buff and personal ads. A reader not fully attuned to these things may fall into the trap of taking the narrator at face value and not notice how clueless he is about some things.
The narrator is virtually blind to anything that doesn’t support his point of view. For example, Frank and his friend, the landlord, advise the narrator to get his own place in Washington. But the narrator continues throughout the novel in the fantasy that he can develop an important bond with the landlord just by being his tenant. Frank attempts to puncture his illusions in his own inimitable way by telling the narrator that the real reason that the landlord has thanked him so warmly for walking his dog is that he’s setting boundaries and the reason the landlord is acting friendlier is because the narrator is leaving.
The narrator listens to a piece of music at a concert and feels it suggests “that what had happened to the person you loved you would never get over; that you still carried it with you; that it lay beneath all things; and only this music—these few notes—recognized that everything else you had been doing, and would do, to fill up the time was meaningless.” He looks at a painting of Adonis preparing to leave Venus and sees Venus feeling rejected rather than, as his student suggests, Venus wanting to hold Adonis back from going out to hunt dangerous animals like boars. A boar ends up killing him. The narrator is obsessed with Mary Todd Lincoln, whose grief at the assassination of her husband consumes her. But the narrator doesn’t notice the aspects of her grieving that could be one of the more melodramatic movie roles played by Bette Davis.
The death of his mother is, understandably, a source of sorrow for the narrator. However, this death could be seen as less wrenching than the deaths of so many young men to AIDS or the sudden unexpected death of a leader and husband in his prime. Frank suggests that Mary Todd Lincoln and even the landlord’s dog, both all alone and powerless, remind the narrator of his mother in the nursing home. The shocking ending to the novel seems to show that Holleran sees the narrator as someone who has gone too far in his grief.