Thursday, July 7, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Lover's Dictionary'

The Book: The Lover's Dictionary

The Author: David Levithan

How I Found It: This review by Jamie highly recommended it. Thanks, Jamie! And as ever this summer, big thanks to my local library.

The Review: I've only ever been disappointed by one of David Levithan's books (Boy Meets Boy, which was too utopian for me and skirted around what I felt were some very important issues), but have sincerely enjoyed others I've read: Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, Realm of Possibility, and now this one. Nick and Norah was a really fun exploration of one wild night for a couple thrown into knowing each other, and Realm of Possibility was a funny and varied look at the love lives of a whole bunch of teenagers. The Lover's Dictionary is Mr. Levithan's first foray into adult fiction, and older readers of his great YA offerings can rest assured knowing that this book is just as good, if not better, as those.

When I first heard about this book, the concept really intrigued me. It's a portrait of a relationship told in a nonlinear fashion, and a particularly interesting one at that: it's a series of words chosen by the narrator, arranged alphabetically into a dictionary that defines their relationship in all its beauty and messiness. Some definitions are less than a sentence; others are whole paragraphs. It's the story of a man loving a woman who might not love him as much, who drinks more than she should, who had an unhappy family as a child. Through the narrator's loving and sometimes not-so-loving definitions, we learn how their relationship came to be, how it stayed there, and maybe even how it fell apart. We see him struggling to cope both with this newfound love and with how to piece together this girl he doesn't quite understand at times.

Some passages were just beautiful evocations of what it feels like to accept someone, flaws and all. Some were funny slices of life that anyone could identify with. Others were heartwrenching snippets of a couple trying to make something work that might be best not working after all. No matter what emotion Levithan was writing, he captured it well, and I just kept marveling at his prose. I couldn't decide which passages were my favorites, because they all made me feel something. Some of the ones that most struck me:

beguile, v. - It's when you walk around the apartment in my boxers when you don't know I'm awake. And then that grin, when you do know I'm awake. You spend so much time in the morning making sure every hair is in place. But I have to tell you: I like it most like this, haphazard, sleep-strewn, disarrayed. (29)

buffonery, n. - You were drunk, and I made the mistake of mentioning Showgirls in a near-empty subway car. The pole had no idea what it was about to endure. (42)

flagrant, adj. - I would be standing right there, and you would walk out of the bathroom without putting the cap back on the toothpaste. (95)

only, adj. - That's the dilemma, isn't it? When you're single, there's the sadness and joy of only me. And when you're paired, there's the sadness and joy of only you. (154)

It's a short read, but the minimal word count doesn't reduce the book's power. Levithan has done an admirable job of capturing the intricacies of a relationship, and even if it's about a heterosexual couple, it could just as easily be applied to any same-sex couple, or just any couple, period. The nonlinear storytelling gave it an extra punch (one entry would be exuberant and happy; the next would be dwelling on a regret or a fight), and I tore through it so fast that I want to reread it just to savor anything I might have missed the first time around.

I'd recommend this one to fans of other nonlinear love stories, such as the musical The Last 5 Years or the movie (500) Days of Summer. Any adult looking for a nontraditional romantic read would probably love it, too, and I imagine it would be entertaining for a couple to share with each other. Highly recommended!


  1. Did you see anywhere where it said that it was a heterosexual couple? I thought it was purposefully vague concerning the gender of the narrator's lover.

  2. I thought so, too, at first, but it occurs to me that they were more than likely heterosexual during the "abstain" passage. The lover says "I'm pregnant," whether joking or not, and the narrator responds "Whose is it?", which seemed to indicate that it was a heterosexual couple and that a child would be the result of a heterosexual love affair. And I was pretty sure that one of the passages mentioned that the narrator would check out other women just as the lover would check out other men. Levithan's written couples of all orientations, though, so it wouldn't surprise me if it was a same-sex couple! I think the book was half-ambiguous, half-not.

  3. This book represents all the things that we have come to love from David Levithan.