Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan

As John Keats wrote in the opening lines of his lengthy narrative poem, Endymion,

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o'er-darken'd ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits...
And so it is with The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan: the book is a joy to read, a thing of almost breathtaking loveliness that increases with reading more, or reading it again - a thing that "moves away the pall from our dark spirits", even as it sometimes dwells on despondence. It began as a Valentine's story for his friends - David has written one every year since his junior year in high school, and many of them can be found in his collection, How They Met and Other Stories (which I adore - the one about the Starbucks guy (called, appropriately enough, "Starbucks Boy") is a particular favorite) - and ended as this lovely, somewhat experimental novel. A thing of beauty indeed.

I bought this book the week it came out, and read it, but then didn't review it right away. I was too amazed and blissed out and completely incoherent to be able to write about it. I was lucky enough to hear David Levithan read selections from the book during his recent book tour. The book is written in first person, speaking of "I" and "you"; whether the book is about a straight or a gay couple is up to the reader to decides, and Levithan said he'd left that deliberately ambiguous. There's something lovely, I think, about such an inclusive way of writing a novel. I re-read the book last week, and still I lack words to praise it properly. Hence the Keats, I suppose - what better than the words of one of the finest poets ever to walk the face of the earth to pay tribute to a thing of beauty such as The Lover's Dictionary?

If you haven't read it, you should know that it is, and is not, a dictionary. It is the story of a relationship between a young couple, told in nonlinear form using a series of entries, each of which is based on a word from the dictionary. It is, naturally, organized alphabetically, beginning with "aberrant, adj." and ending with "zenith, n." David said that he got the words from a book he'd received as a graduation present somewhere along the the way - a "great words everyone should know" sort of collection. To give you an idea how the book is organized, here are four entries. None of them is next to the other in the book, by the way. There's at least one entry for each of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, but many, many more than that for quite a few letters. The letter A alone has twenty entries ("anthem, n." completely cracked me up, then blew me away, but it's not in this post). The first entry below is, however, the very first entry in the book:

aberrant, adj.

"I don't normally do this kind of thing," you said.
  "Neither do I," I assured you.
  Later it turned out we had both met people online before,
and we had both slept with people on first dates before, and
we had both found ourselves falling too fast before. But we com-
forted ourselves with what we really meant to say, which was:
"I don't normally feel this good about what I'm doing."
  Measure the hope of that moment, that feeling.
  Everything else will be measured against it.
Mmmmm said the audience, after David read this one aloud. Here are three more. Within the book, each entry starts at the top of its own page.

antsy, adj.

I swore I would never take you to the opera again.
continguous, adj.

I felt silly for even mentioning it, but once I did, I knew I
had to explain.
  "When I was a kid," I said, "I had this puzzle with all fifty
states on it -- you know, the kind where you have to fit them
all together. And one day I got it in my head that California
and Nevada were in love. I told my mom, and she had no idea
what I was talking about. I ran and got those two pieces and
showed it to her -- California and Nevada, completely in
love. So a lot of the time when we're like this" -- my ankles
against the backs of your ankles, my knees fitting into the
backs of your knees, my thighs on the backs of your legs, my
stomach against your back, my chin folding into your neck --
"I can't help but think about California and Nevada, and how
we're a lot like them. If someone were drawing us from above
as a map, that's what we'd look like; that's how we are."
  For a moment, you were quiet. And then you nestled in
and whispered,
  And I knew you understood.
hubris, n.

Every time I call you mine, I feel like I'm forcing it, as if say-
ing it can make it so. As if I'm reminding you, and reminding
the universe: mine. As if that one word from me could have
that kind of power.
I quite literally cannot speak highly enough about this book, even with the assistance of some of the great words contained within it. Though it speaks of a relationship between a couple in their twenties, it will resonate with most teens - and the frank discussion of various aspects of the relationship between the twenty-somethings it's about will appeal to readers looking to get a handle on what real relationships between post-teens are like.


Sarah Stevenson said...

Wow, this sounds amazing! I'm really intrigued by the way it's structured, especially. It makes me think of Nabokov's Pale Fire, where the structure is, in some important ways, the story.

BookChic said...

I really need to get my hands on this. It sounds so good! Plus, I love David and his books so it's a no-brainer. Great review!

Jojo P. said...

THE LOVER'S DICTIONARY is one of those rare novel that keep me up all night.