May 20, 2011

BOOKS: The Lover's Dictionary, David Levithan (2011)

The story of a love affair, told in dictionary format.

Levithan presents a series of dictionary words, each with commentary from the narrator (identified only as "I") speaking to his partner ("you"). I and You are never specifically identified by gender. There's a joke about pregnancy early on that, if taken literally, would make I male and You female, but I don't think there's any reason that the joke must be taken literally.

Each entry in this dictionary/journal gives us another tiny piece of their story, which is a fairly typical one -- they meet and fall in love, there is infidelity and a breakup, there may be reconciliation (the ending is a bit ambiguous). And since there's nothing particularly unusual or compelling about the story, the book succeeds or fails entirely on the strength of Levithan's fragmented method of telling the story.

It works pretty well. We get a surprisingly strong sense of who I and You are in a short space; the book's only 211 pages, it's a tiny book, and many of the pages/entries are only a sentence or two long. Levithan chooses words one would expect to find in a love story (ardent, beguile), words one might not (antiperspirant, deciduous), and words one would hope not to (defunct, hiatus). The fragments build on one another in interesting ways; there's a conversation beginning with the words "It's over" that repeats several times, each time getting longer and changing our perception of what's happening.

And some of the individual entries are lovely, almost little poems or short stories in themselves. This, for instance, is the entry at "only":
That's the dilemma, isn't it? When youre single, there's the sadness and joy of only me. And when you're paired, there's the sadness and joy of only you.
It's a melancholy, haunting little book, and Levithan does a lovely job of giving us specific character details that take the story beyond the rather mundane events.

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