21 February 2011

Book Review in Brief: The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan

I first heard about The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan a few months ago when our sales rep showed it to us.  Never having read him before, it didn't elicit the kind of excited reaction that I know other readers have had, so when the book arrived in the store, it went mostly under my radar.  Then my friend and former coworker, Rebecca Fabian, posted about it on her great blog called Wildly Read, so I started paying a bit more attention.  I bought this book for myself shortly after I read her blogpost with the intention of giving it as a Valentine's Day present but ended up keeping it when I figured my beloved probably wouldn't like it...That, and we decided not to give each other presents this year as a means of saving our pennies for vacation instead!

Something old is new again with this novel.  It's the story of a love affair, but instead of being told chronologically, it's told alphabetically through dictionary entries where the couple's experience over the course of their relationship defines the words.  Because of its nature, it was a very fast read for me--unlike other readers, I wasn't caught up in the relationship so much as caught up in the narrative structure.  I'm not always a fan of gimicky storytelling in my fiction (George Perec? No, thanks!) because it usually gets in the way of the narrative flow, but this book I enjoyed.  I also liked how the lovers in question go unnamed and genderless throughout the books--which means every reader can read into this novel his or her own romantic inclinations and orientations. I at first identified the primary speaker as male and the "you" as female because of a few details (shoes, a pole dance reference), but I'm convinced in retrospect that it could go either way.

Here are a few excerpts--I chose shorter ones, but some of the definitions cover more than one page:

candid, adj.
"Most times, when I'm having sex, I'd rather be reading."
This was, I admit, a strange thing to say on a second date.  I guess I was just giving you warning.
"Most times when I'm reading," you said, "I'd rather be having sex."

fallible, adj.
I was hurt. Of course I was hurt. But in a perverse way, I was relieved that you were the one who made the mistake. It made me worry less about myself.

sacrosanct, adj.
The nape of your neck.  Even the sound of the word nape sounds holy to me.  That and the hollow of your neck, the peek of your chest that your shirt sometimes reveals.  These are the stations of my quietest, most insistent desire.

One last thing to mention...I love it when publishers are loose and comfortable enough to play with their logos for certain titles.  Knopf did it for the book Geek Love, so on the spine of that book, the traditional Borzoi logo bore five legs instead of the usual four.  I've not seen anybody mention it before now for The Lover's Dictionary, but the three little fish that comprise the logo for FSG (Farrar, Strous, Giroux) have heart-shaped heads instead of the usual triangular ones.  Subtle, but cute!


  1. Yes! I was thinking about the book on the walk home from work when I realized I never read a "her" or "him" or any sort of gender identifier. It really tickled me. (I did assign male to the storyteller and female to the lover, but it was only because of the shoes.)

  2. This sounds like something I would like as a change to the "normal" fiction I read. I remember reading something by Amy Bloom that used words and definitions to tell the story a few years back. Too bad I have such a faulty memory to remember the title. I'm kind of interested in the genderless idea. Okay, going in my Amazon cart now. Thanks for the good review.

  3. Yes, thanks for mentioning that, as I've gone back and modified my original post to reflect my first reading of the "I" and "you" and my later reading of it. Partly because of the shoes as you say, and partly because of the pole dance reference, and partly, I suspect, because I'm a (straight) woman and identified more with the aspects of the "you."

  4. Bookbelle, if you recall what the title of the Bloom book, I'd love to know, as I've never seen anything like that bfre. Thanks!

  5. You're the second reliable reviewer to recommend this one, so I'm going to put it on my library list. Or perhaps it's worth purchasing at Indiebound. What do you think?

  6. Laurie, I'm really glad that I read it and there are a few parts that will stay with me, but it's not a book that I'll keep. I'll probably pass it along to a friend or sell it back to a local bookstore. But my friend Rebecca (who might be the other reviewer you refer to) would probably recommend buying and keeping it. Libraries are great that way--you can test drive a book before committing to buy it!


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