Book Review: The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan
I’m so glad that I finally picked up a copy of this remarkable book — one of the few remaining books by David Levithan that I had yet to read.
David Levithan is the supremely talented author of incredibly fine works of young adult fiction, as well as an editorial director at Scholastic. But in The Lover’s Dictionary, David Levithan does something completely different: He writes for grown-ups.
To be clear: The Lover’s Dictionary isn’t a YA book that adults will also love. It is a mature look at adult love, and it is astounding.
Am I gushing yet? Because I feel like I’m gushing.
This is a novel, but the title doesn’t lie: It is a novel written in dictionary format. Each page contains an entry — at the least a few lines, at the most a page or two — going from A to Z, offering a word and its part of speech, followed by simply sensational definitions.
From aberrant to zenith, The Lover’s Dictionary tells the story of a relationship, not in chronological order, but in alphabetical order.
The two main characters remained unnamed. All we know is that this man and this woman meet online, begin dating, fall in love, live together, and then deal with what living together and loving together really means.
It’s beautiful and it’s unpredictable. It’s also disturbing and even heartbreaking.
Because the book is written alphabetically, there’s a strange sense of dislocation and confusion throughout. Wait, she cheated? When, exactly? Oh, they had a beautiful day in the park. But was that before or after? When they talk about having hope, are they in the early days, or the days that might possibly be too late?
But isn’t real life full of dislocation and confusion? Real relationships don’t evolve along a timeline, nicely following an outline like the tidy plot of a movie. There are ups and downs, reversals and collapses, leaps forward, near misses. It doesn’t have to go in order to make sense.
What we the readers are left with is a story of two people who seem to love each other intensely, but who also occasionally irritate each other and hurt each other and wish the other person would change, either a lot or a little.
Little snippets of the relationship just feel so real:
No, I don’t listen to the weather in the morning. No, I don’t keep track of what I spend. No, it hadn’t occurred to me that the Q train would have been much faster. But every time you give me that look, it doesn’t make me want to live up to your standards.
Who hasn’t had these types of highs and lows, even in the same day, in a long-term relationship:
It swings both ways, really.
I’ll see your hat on the table and I’ll feel such longing for you, even if you’re only in the other room. If I know you aren’t looking, I’ll hold the green wool up to my face, inhale that echo of your shampoo and the cold air from outside.
But then I’ll walk into the bathroom and find you’ve forgotten to put the cap back on the toothpaste again, and it will be this splinter that I just keep stepping on.
David Levithan knows words. I’ve admired his use of language in his YA novels as well, and here his verbal flourishes are on full display. He delves into the inner lives of words, twists them apart and finds their hidden selves, finds connections in the most unlikely of places. It’s beautiful to behold, even apart from the story itself, how the author turns the use of everyday language into an elevated art form.
Meanwhile, the story itself is gritty and often sad, yet has moments of real romance, humor and beauty. Interestingly, it’s The Lover’s Dictionary, not The Lovers’ Dictionary. That apostrophe placement makes a big difference. The male narrator is a writer, and this is his record of the relationship. Is he building a case? Is he writing a love letter? Is this a memory or a real-time journal? We don’t know. We don’t see both sides of the story. We just see him, with his devotion and his exasperation, addressing his thoughts to her, with hope and with love.
It’s one of the most unusual books I’ve ever read, but it truly works.
And now I really am gushing.
Clearly, I love this book. It’s not long (211 pages in the hardcover edition), but it’s no more than a reading session of an hour or two, given the white spaces and breathing room around each dictionary entry. Don’t rush, though. Because it’s not chronological, much is open to interpretation. Was this referring to that? Or maybe to that one there? So savor, enjoy the language, puzzle out the connections in time, and then maybe flip back through one more time to see if you still think the same events occurred in the same order, for the same reasons and with the same outcomes. I know I changed my mind a few times along the way.
A final note: If you haven’t had the pleasure, don’t miss out on David Levithan’s young adult novels. His gift for language and his commitment to getting to the essence of communications shine through in everything he writes. If you’re interested, check out my reviews of some of his other books:
Title: The Lover’s Dictionary
Author: David Levithan
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 2011
Genre: Adult fiction