The Lover’s Dictionary – David Levithan

When authors play with the conventional format of a novel, it can either be a wonderful thing or a complete disaster. ‘The Lover’s Dictionary’ by David Levithan is a book that has a rather inventive format as it tells a love story though in the form of a dictionary. Sounds odd, well bizarrely its not and it actually really works. In fact it’s this sort of novel that tries to be different, succeeds and makes a rewarding read and yet hasn’t been paid much attention. It is these sort of books that I want to be reading more of and writing more about on Savidge Reads.

4th Estate; 2011; hardback; 211 pages; sent by publisher

How on earth could a dictionary of words tell a love story? Well the easiest answer I would have to that is to say ‘go and read David Levithan’s new novel The Lover’s Dictionary’. However as I should be hinting at why it’s worth doing that a single short sentence isn’t really a justifiable reason or incentive.

Levithan uses a selection of words, in alphabetical order of course, and then below the word in a sentence, a paragraph or a page or two long piece creates a moment or incident in the relationship that builds an image of a time in that relationship. Be it from ‘anthem’ to ‘kerfuffle’ or ‘leery’ to ‘yearning’ in each case clearly, simply and very effectively Levithan draws the reader into the most intimate and emotional moments of a couple’s journey. That last bit makes it sounds saccharine and its not, I don’t like saccharine novels, so it’s probably best I give you an example, my favourite of which was ‘buffoonery’ because it made me laugh, a lot.

buffoonery, n.
You were drunk, and I made the mistake of mentioning Showgirls in a near-empty subway car. The pole had no idea what it was about to endure.

Though with alchoholism and adultery all lingering between the lines of this novel don’t go thinking it’s just a lovely story of love, there are the darker sides of it too. After closing the final page of ‘The Lover’s Dictionary’, which is a deceptively short novel to read, I actually felt like I had witnessed the development of a three year relationship from its very start to its very finish and with the highs and lows that come during that time period. Rather amazing then that this has happened without knowing either of the names of the two people who create that couple. In fact you are never even sure what the sex of the second person in that novel is, its left a mystery, the nameless narrator we only learn is male half way through, the lover however could be a man or a woman – you just know that this person is rather stunningly beautiful, because the narrator spends a lot of time obsessing over this and the insecurity it breeds in them.

This slightly insular edge the narrator has, seemingly caused by a slight inferiority complex is one that we have all had in relationships before I am sure. In fact it’s the slight feeling of empathy that Levithan creates with the nameless narrator which means you can put yourself slap bang in their place, and it’s occasionally a little uncomfortable. It’s this very real sensation that I liked so much about the book, love isn’t all flowers and joy, it can be hard work, and it can be heartbreaking. It has both the good sides and the not so. Levithan explores these two spectrums of feelings and all those that fall in the middle of them too. I loved how the book hit on those moments of random togetherness we can sometimes feel with someone, I haven’t seen it done so well in a book for quite some time.

meander, v.

“…because when it all comes down to it, there’s no such thing as a two-hit wonder. So its better just to have that one song everyone knows, instead of diluting it with a follow-up that only half succeeds. I mean, who really cares what Soft Cell’s next single was, as long as we have ‘Tainted Love’?”
I stop. You’re still listening.
“Wait”, I say. “What was I talking about? How did we get to ‘Tainted Love’?”
“Let’s see,” you say. “I believe we started roughly at the Democratic gains in the South, then jumped back to the election of 1948, dipping briefly into northern constructions of the South, vis-à-vis Steel Magnolias, Birth of a Nation, Johnny Cash, and Fried Green Tomatoes. Which landed you on To Kill A Mockingbird, and how it is both Southern and universal, which – correct me if I am wrong – got us to Harper Lee and her lack of a follow-up novel, intersected with the theory, probably wrong, that Truman Capote wrote the novel, then hopping over to literary one-hit wonders, and using musical  one-hit wonders to make a point about their special place in our culture. I think.”
“Thank you,” I say. “That’s wonderful.” 

As I mentioned above books that strive to do something different with fiction can go several ways. People can find them contrived, calculated, maybe a little niche and a little too gimmicky, or they can be the next best thing ever. I would put ‘The Lover’s Dictionary’ somewhere in the middle. I did feel a little at the start like this was going to be one of those books you would only buy someone for valentines day which would then end up in the garbage a few months or years down the line. Well shame on me, because this is much more than that, it has a depth despite how succinct it is. Actually, as I think on it, it could be the succinct brief nature of ‘The Lover’s Dictionary’ that makes it so compelling and hits the emotions home to the reader. I don’t want to call this book ground breaking or experimental, it’s just something that’s rather different and really works. 8/10

I haven’t read any of Levithan’s other work, I think he is much better known in the US than he is here, or am I wrong? Has anyone else read his work and what did you think? Has anyone else read this novel? What was the last novel you read that used an unusual format and did it work for you?


Filed under David Levithan, Fourth Estate Books, Review

23 responses to “The Lover’s Dictionary – David Levithan

  1. Louise

    I’ll definitely be giving this a go!…I like a something quirky, and this could be fun! I read Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares last christmas and I loved that, also Boy Meets Boy, I’m not a huge ya reader, but these were brilliant 😉

  2. Odd book, but no less interesting. I like when authors do books that are let’s say outside the box, especially with themes that are so in temporal like love.

    • I think the theme of this book means that the unusual style can work, I don’t think you could get away with this with some other subjects… like maybe a murder filled crime… or could you?

  3. This sounds like a really fresh and interesting way to tell a story. It is now on my wish list – thank you!

  4. gaskella

    Sarah Salway’s Something beginning with which I reviewed back here uses the same format with great success and also has a story arc gradually building up through the entries. This book sounds similarly worth reading too.

    • I shall pop and look at that post shortly. If its builds up in an arc then yes they are sort of the same kind of thing. Its an original twist even if a few people are doing it. How do you make links look like that in comments I am useless with HTML and all that bumpf.

  5. I know him as an author of YA books here in the U.S. I’ve enjoyed them as entertainment, though I would not rank them as great YA “Literature.” He has a fairly large following over here.

    • I don’t think he is as well known over here, but if he merges into the adult market further then who knows. I have to admit I do get him and David Leavitt mixed up rather alot. A bit like I do with Penelope Lively and Penelope Fizgerald.

  6. It’s a wonderful book and because you don’t know if the narrator is talking about a male or female, it reminded me of Written on the Body, by Winterson…

  7. Stephanie

    David Levithan co-wrote ‘Will Grayson, Will Grayson’ with John Green in another fresh take on a ‘novel’ approach to novel writing. They wrote alternating chapters and met fortnightly to compare where their chapters had taken the story and then wrote the follow-up chapter/s. This was a delightful YA story that had a real feel of how young love works in both straight and gay relationships. This story has a very ‘fresh’ feel to it and was one of my ‘finds’ of last year. David Levithan was the ‘find’ of the Auckland Writers and Readers’ Festival in 2010. He’s a very enthusiastic speaker. You should consider his book/s for the Green Carnation award.

    • Ha, I like the ideas of alternating chapters, more authors should do that, can you imagine the fun they could have. You could do something utterly random and outrageous and make it really hard work for the other writer. Or is that just me?

      I can’t say if his books have been put forward for the Green Carnation or not sadly. Well I dont think I can 😉

  8. I absolutely love this book–and, in fact, everything David Levithan has written (except, curiously, for Will Grayson, Will Grayson which the person above recommends but I thought was disappointing for Levithan’s high standard. I would recommend his short story anthology “How They Met, and Other Stories” which is firstly very gay (yay) and also full of the click-of-recognition moments that Lover’s Dictionary is filled with.

    • I like the idea of a book filled with click-of-recognition moments. I will definitely be giving Levithian another whirl. Maybe you didnt like the co-written one because it was Levithian kind of diluted or not in full control?

  9. bookgazing

    I really just want to push ‘Boy Meets Boy’ at you now. It’s sooooo good and upliftingly cheerful, without being sentimental at all!

  10. I really liked “I, the Divine: A Novel in First Chapters” by Rabih Alameddine. The format sounds gimicky (it really is all first chapters, or attempts at a first chapter, of the same story) but it works really well, I thought.

    • I can’t decide if I think thta sounds like an utterly brilliant book, or if in fact it sounds a little like ‘If On A Winters Night a Traveller’ which I couldnt stand. I will have to go off and investigate further, thanks for the heads up as I hadn’t heard of that book before you mentioned it.

  11. Pingback: With a Zero at Its Heart – Charles Lambert | Savidge Reads

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