The Lover’s Dictionary
by David Levithan
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Recommended by John Warner
I have to be honest. This book had two strikes against it. One, it looked gimmicky, a novel told as a series of dictionary entries written by one lover addressed to another. Very clever, but I’d seen clever before, and clever, by itself, is not so interesting.
Two, it was described in the press materials as “romantic.” Also, by turns “heartbreaking” and “hilarious.” Don’t get me wrong. I’m fine with romance, (and hilarity, and heartbreak, as long as it isn’t my own) but by and large, these things are not done well. For example, name the last romantic comedy film that actually felt as though it had something meaningful and true and interesting to say about human relationships.
I’m still waiting.
Point being, there’s reasons for the skepticism. We’re talking very difficult and tricky territory here.
But The Lover’s Dictionary won me over completely. Yes, it’s romantic, and heartbreaking, and hilarious, but the more interesting question to me is how it manages to be these things.
One reason is the structure, which is no gimmick, but instead allows a strategy of oblique storytelling to emerge, where we come at incident slantwise, like an Emily Dickinson poem. Seeing the puzzle of this relationship come together in this way is a real pleasure.
Under the entry for “balk” we learn of a big step in the relationship: “I was the one who said we should live together. And even as I was doing it. I knew this would mean 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.”
Also, the prose. As you can see, it’s precise, modulated, real. Care has clearly been taken.
And last, the romance. The Lover’s Dictionary does something brave for literary fiction, it risks sentiment, and in that risk it’s rewarded. It’s easy to do phony BS romance of the genre or teenage vampire variety because in those emotions there is no risk, nothing real is at stake because those characters haven’t put themselves on any kind of limb. In The Lover’s Dictionary, David Levithan shows that real romance is all about risk, the risk of two people extending themselves toward each other with love and fear and uncertainty in the hope of something good.
I started reading the book as a cynic. By page 20 I was a convert. By the end, an evangelist.
John Warner is the editor of The Staff Recommends and the author of Fondling Your Muse: Infallible Advice From a Published Author to the Writerly Aspirant.