David Levithan is an unapologetic romantic. His young adult novels co-written with Rachel Cohn (NICK & NORAH’S INFINITE PLAYLIST, DASH & LILY’S BOOK OF DARES) are joyful celebrations of quirky young romance, and his collection of love stories, HOW THEY MET, remains one of my favorite books on the topic of love. Many of those tales had their origin in his tradition of writing a Valentine's Day story for his family and friends. Now, in his first novel marketed to adults, Levithan offers an unusual portrait of a long-term relationship, exploring not only How They Met but also How They (Almost?) Fell Apart.
"It's an impressive feat that, in "dictionary entries" (one to a page) that are sometimes as short as a single sentence, Levithan manages not only to provide such depths of characterization but also to offer genuine insights into this very particular love story and the nature of any long-term romantic relationship."
THE LOVER'S DICTIONARY is told not chronologically but alphabetically, as Levithan's narrator uses a series of dictionary entries to tell the story of his love for an unnamed woman. Although the first entry (aberrant, adj.) tells of their first date --- the two met on an online dating site --- after that, the entries move back and forth freely in time, from their earliest courtship to the most recent betrayal that has stressed the relationship to the brink.
We're told this story from the point of view of the man in the relationship; we never hear the woman's own voice (except as reported by the narrator). Surprisingly, though, we do learn a lot about her. She's charismatic, impulsive, maybe more than a little untrustworthy. She has a tendency to drink too much, but people (almost) always forgive her because she's so darn charming. And she inevitably fails to put the cap back on the toothpaste, but our narrator usually keeps his mouth shut. Because, well, he loves her. In this way --- the tiny details he shares about his beloved and their life together, the way he tells their story --- we also come to know our narrator, to long for this quiet, seemingly vulnerable man to find lasting happiness.
It's an impressive feat that, in "dictionary entries" (one to a page) that are sometimes as short as a single sentence, Levithan manages not only to provide such depths of characterization but also to offer genuine insights into this very particular love story and the nature of any long-term romantic relationship. For example, "balk, v. I was the one who said we should live together. And even as I was doing it, I knew this would mean that I would be the one to blame if it all went wrong. Then I consoled myself with this: if it all went wrong, the last thing I'd care about was who was to blame for moving in together." Or this: "reservation, n. There are times when I worry that I've already lost myself. That is, that my self is so inseparable from being with you that if we were to separate, I would no longer be. I save this thought for when I feel the darkest discontent. I never meant to depend so much on someone else."
THE LOVER'S DICTIONARY is a series of these small truths --- mixed with the nuances, frustrations and joys of this particular relationship. It's the kind of book you want to give to your friends who have been together forever, the ones whose relationship you admire; the kind of book you hesitantly give to the person you've just started seeing, while you're both still asking if this is "the one"; the kind of book you someday hope to read aloud from, in bed, to the person you love, waiting for the knowing look you'll see when he or she recognizes that this story is also your story, the story of everyone who has found --- and fought for --- the elusive thing called love.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 23, 2012
The Lover’s Dictionary