A love story told entirely through dictionary entries with unusual definitions, this book follows the relationship between an unnamed narrator and his partner. Told out of sequence, the dictionary entries capture moments and snippets of conversations between these two people as they navigate the joys and pitfalls of falling in love, as well as dealing with issues of infidelity and alcoholism. The book aims to answer (or at least explore) the question of how we talk about love.
Levithan’s first foray into adult fiction is a successful one. He’s taken a common story: two people meet and fall in love and given it a fresh, intriguing spin. Told out of sequence and entirely through dictionary entries, Levithan’s novel manages to capture perfectly the feelings and emotions that result from falling in and out of love with a person.
The narrator is a solid, functional man who comes from a loving familial background. His partner–a woman (although the book is remarkably gender-neutral there is one reference to her making a joke about being pregnant near the beginning of the book)–is much more charismatic, but she’s also wild, an alcoholic, and unfaithful. Her dysfunctional family background makes her weary of love and dubious of its ability to last. These characters are created through snippets of dialogue and interaction in each of the entries, and because Levithan is such a talented writer, they’re fully realized.
Although I’ve had mixed feelings about Levithan’s work with Rachel Cohn, this book has made me a convert to his writing. I worship at the altar of Levithan, Readers. It’s clear that Levithan not only respects words but loves them. His prose is sparse, lyrical, and gorgeous. He manages to capture the thoughts and emotions of love and make it a universal experience for the reader. Even though Levithan makes ample use of negative space, this is a book to be read slowly, and I encourage readers not to rush through it but to pause and think about every entry, letting it sink in.
The broken-up sequencing of the novel works extremely well. Entries about the elation and excitement of falling in love brush up against entries describing the crushing blow that a confession of indiscretion can bring. This jumping around, this up-and-down, back-and-forth dance plays out much like they way we actually think about our own relationships, skipping around to the great moments you wish you could live in forever while also parsing through the bad moments that tug at your heartstrings. It’s very smart, what Levithan has done here, and it’s also very compelling stuff.
Highly, highly recommended, readers. This is a book that you should be reading, if you haven’t done so already.
The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan, Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2011. Library copy.