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Laughing in the Face of Death

Book Note: The Lover's Dictionary

When I first read—probably, since I can't find the NY Times review I thought I'd read, on some blog or another—about the book The Lover's Dictionary, by David Levithan, I thought intriguing but perhaps too gimmicky. But, since it had already been ordered and was almost ready to check out an our library, I put it on hold anyway, letting the interesting reaction override the gimmicky potential.

Why gimmicky? Well, it's a love story—told as dictionary entries. I thought it might be sort of hard to follow, and that the form would force the story into awkwardness.
Thank goodness I trusted my interestingresponse, because I loved this book. It tells the story of two unnamed people who meet online, fall in love, move in together, and try to make things work despite alcoholism and adultery. The nature of the structure means that you get the story in non-linear parts; it's nowhere near chronological. You can't even say you get the story in themes, as the words in the dictionary are fairly random and disconnected: abyss, acronym, beware, daunting, deadlock; sunder, tableau, ubiquitous, vagary, yearning. Instead, it is pieced together, a sort of quilt-like approach to storytelling. Or, perhaps, like memory, the way you remember a relationship not by chronology but by seemingly-disconnected snippets of what ached and what buoyed.
The structure of the story leaves some unanswered questions. It took me awhile to figure out if the narrator was a man or a woman, and even longer to decide if the "you" he writes to is a woman. You don't get all the details; you don't know if they stay together or not. If it is a quilt, it's a patchy one. But the story still covers you, and not just the story, but what it says about language, too. Take, just as an example, the definition for "daunting":
Really, we should use this more as a verb. You daunted me, and I daunted you. Or would it be that I was daunted by you, and you were daunted by me? That sounds better. . . . The key is to never recognize these imbalances. To not let the dauntingness daunt us."
or "infidel":
We think of them as hiding in the hills — rebels, ransackers, rogue revolutionaries. But really, aren't they just guilty of infidelity?
Some of the entries—most, really—focus more on the relationship, like the entry for "stanchion":
I don’t want to be the strong one, but I don’t want to be the weak one, either. Why does it feel like it’s always one or the other? When we embrace, one of us is always holding the other a little tighter.

Even though it's a quick read, you'll want to linger over the details. You'll piece together what happens in the relationship. And you'll be left glad you read the story.


Becky K

Just put it on hold! It sounds really good. I didn't read it too closely so that I can experience it for myself. :)

chris jenkins

That sounds like an interesting book. Different. I like books with different structures. I loved the "Potato" book - the Guernsey . . .
because it was told in letters. I also love Jodi Picoult books because she will change whose point of view from which the story is told. Thanks for sharing!


This was my favorite sentence bit of your review: "like memory, the way you remember a relationship not by chronology but by seemingly-disconnected snippets of what ached and what buoyed." "What ached and what buoyed" - what an excellent way to put the memory of a relationship, for aren't all relationships full of aches and buoys of emotion. Beautiful!


It does sound interesting. Will add to my suggestion list for my book club... and maybe it will redeem the disappointment of this one which should have been *so good* but ended up being totally disappointing.

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