Sunday, June 5, 2011

Review: The Lover's Dictionary

Hundreds of books, songs, plays, and other forms of media have been so celebrated because they successfully conveyed their answer or just artistically zeroed in on that one slam book item: define love. What do we talk about when we talk about love? How exactly do we talk about it? Does anyone possess the right words to describe the word?

For David Levithan, love—a thing that can be both “utterly mundane and completely transcendent, pulling us out of our everyday lives and making us feel a part of something greater than ourselves”—is ineffable. No matter how many phrases you string together, no matter how many words you know in a door-stopper of a lexicon, you wouldn’t be able to ‘really’ define it. What the author did to answer this problem is The Lover’s Dictionary.

Composed of short entries that give the readers interesting peeks at the quotidian life of an ordinary couple, The Lover’s Dictionary is more like a romantic thesaurus. Levithan, with the power of his elegant narration, connects every word in his dictionary with the main topic of the little tome so that as a whole it seems like every entry is a synonym for love. The narrator tells the story of his romantic relationship in dictionary format, wherein the ‘descriptions’ are actually vignettes that fit with the entry word. This may seem like a little trope—fanfiction writers here might see this as similar to drabbles written for prompts—but Levithan has this magic of turning the run of the mill into something special. The Lover’s Dictionary maybe his smallest volume, but it’s the epitome of his gracefulness in writing: the juxtaposition of dark, morose moments and those that are shown in happy, Technicolor is just spot-on.

This is a fun, quick read. Levithan’s writing is brutally honest and heartfelt. I’ve only read a few of Levithan’s books, but I can confidently say that his characters (or just the voice of the characters) will leave a lingering feeling in you after you read. At first it may seem like it’s hard to identify with the narrator, what with the portraits of his life that the readers can see only in staccato. But when he talks, he talks directly, shamelessly, sincerely to you. Every now and then the reader will see a chunk of himself in the protagonist, and that’s the very string that connects them: familiarity, similarity. That, as in any book, is always the best thing.
The main characters are nameless—the narrator, his partner. There’s no physical description, age, or even gender (it’s generally agreed that the relationship is heterosexual, since there’s an entry that mentions pregnancy—though that is not confirmed as a jest or not). The spadework here, apparently, is left to the readers. It's up to them to mold the characters based on their voices and actions. I'm usually not comfortable with this style, but Levithan makes it feel like it's actually a gift to the readers. Very enjoyable!

Thumbs up for an addictive treat!

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