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'The Lover's Dictionary': Definitions For Heartbreak

David Levithan, an editorial director at Scholastic Books and a popular author of young adult fiction (including an unusually un-fraught novel about gay adolescents, Boy Meets Boy), brings ingenuity and a wry edge to his first adult novel. The Lover's Dictionary cleverly uses about 200 unorthodox word definitions, from aberrant to zenith, to tell the story of a couple who meet online, move in together and struggle to weather infidelity.

The cheated-upon steadier mate, who narrates, is male, but it's deliberately unclear whether his poorly behaved lover, who comes from a less happy home and drinks, flirts and buys shoes to excess, is male or female. Amazingly, it doesn't really matter. Also left open to interpretation is whether the relationship endures -- an uncertainty some readers may find intriguing, others frustrating.

Although its originality is incontestable, The Lover's Dictionary does bring to mind some antecedents, including Alain de Botton's 1993 novel On Love, which, via numbered sections under chapter headings such as "Romantic Fatalism," "Idealism" and "Suicide," relays the ups and downs of a romance begun on an airplane. It also evokes Ambrose Bierce's sardonic but non-narrative 1911 The Devil's Dictionary, another glossary packed with personality and sharp opinions that deviate from standard definitions. For the record, the cynical Bierce defines "love," in part, as "the folly of thinking much of another before one knows anything of oneself," or, alternately, "a temporary insanity curable by marriage."

Levithan's lexicon seems to invite casual browsing through its brief entries, each sprawled on a king-size mattress of a page all to itself. But while he revels in modern nonlinear storytelling, Levithan has made an elaborate bed that requires assembling the various pillows and shams in a specific order, proceeding very deliberately from brash ("I loved the notion that the night was mine to spend, and I immediately decided to spend it on you") to breach ("I didn't want to know who he was, or what you did, or that it didn't mean anything"). Details of the narrator's pained reaction to his lover's betrayal are doled out and amplified in succeeding entries, such as: "leery, adj. Those first few weeks, after you told me, I wasn't sure we were going to make it. ... Finally, I said, 'It's over' "; and "persevere, v. You started to cry, and I quickly said, 'No -- I mean this part is over. We have to get to the next part.' "

Among the novel's pleasures are micro-stories that speak volumes, reminiscent of Lydia Davis' work. Two, in their entirety, read: "antsy, adj. I swore I would never take you to the opera again," and, "kerfuffle, n. From now on, you are only allowed one drink at any of my office parties. One. Preferably a beer."

There's plenty of reflection, not just on the relationship but on the attempt to distill and describe such complex feeling, including this: "Trying to write about love is ultimately like trying to have a dictionary represent life. No matter how many words there are, there will never be enough." That, by the way, is Levithan's definition of ineffable.

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Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.