I’m not going to even try.
Earlier this week I read the most exquisite novel. David Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary is an ambitious and perfectly executed love story about a relationship gone awry. What makes this novel completely unique is the unorthodox way in which the story is told. As the title suggests, it is a dictionary. Chronology dispensed, the reader uncovers the relationship step by step as we move through the alphabet. Readers who enjoy order and structure in your novels, beware: what would be a major turning point towards the end of a love story is revealed quite early, foreshadowing the trouble to come. If you can relax into the story, the lack of chronology is highly effective – you are aware of what will happen, yet certain ‘chapters’ or definitions describing the early relationship reflect the beautiful naivety of a new love. It’s bittersweet, really, like most love stories.
I didn’t tell any of my friends about our first date. I waited until after the second, because I wanted to make sure it was real. I wouldn’t believe it had happened until it had happened again. Then, later on, I would be overwhelmed by the evidence, by all the lines connecting you to me, and us to love.
Another unique element of the novel are the nameless and seemingly gender-less characters. Levithan has written numerous works featuring gay male characters, so it is difficult to apply general heterosexual assumptions from the descriptions of the characters. In any case, it’s irrelevant. The narrator, highly likely a male, is a fairly logical and straightforward person who was raised in a caring and loving family environment. This element stands in stark contrast to his lover; an outgoing and chaotic individual with a drinking problem and complicated family history. Always an electric combination; however the initial intensity of “falling through the surface of want and deep into the trenches of need” rapidly burns out when the chaotic nature of the lover threatens to destroy their relationship.
The date before the one with you had gone so badly – egotist, smoker, bad breath – that I’d vowed to delete my profile the next morning. Except when I went to do it, I realised I only had eight days left in the billing cycle. So I gave it eight days. You emailed me on the sixth.
As I read, I couldn’t help see parts of myself in the characters. I think that’s what makes it such an effective and touching novel; their idiosyncrasies, their thoughts, their actions – it’s all entirely relatable. At some point in our lives, we’ve all had too much to drink and said something we regret. We’ve all forgotten what our life was like without a certain person in it. We’re experienced the mad and passionate nature of a new love. And we’ve made decisions and poor choices that, at the time, seem impossible to recover from. We are imperfect beings, trying to do the best we can with the tools we have. I found myself nodding in agreement and wondering how Levithan had so beautifully put my own thoughts and feelings about love onto paper. Love is a fluke – it’s serendipity and chance rolled up into being in the right place and the right time. Some times it ends well, other times it doesn’t. But any love, good or bad, changes you. You learn more about yourself and cannot simply walk away from it unaffected. It builds you up, breaks you down, and has made you the person you are today.
These words will ultimately end up being the barest of reflections, devoid of the sensations words cannot convey. 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.
Levithan writes with a warm-hearted and mischievous tone, and in so beautifully writing about the eternal human condition, he has written one of the better modern love stories of late. On the front cover of the Australian paperback edition, Brendan Cowell has stated, “this book made me want to fall in love again.” I was optimistically cautious about his claim. How can words on a page (and so few words, at that) make you want to fall in love? I can’t explain it, and maybe that’s what makes it so magical. For all the ups and downs it involves, The Lover’s Dictionary reminds us of the beauty of love. The smiles, the warm feelings inside, the simple pleasure of having someone else in this world love you back. I’m convinced. I want to fall in love again. Maybe you will too.