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Book review: The Lover’s Dictionary – A love story in 185 definitions by David Levithan

This is the story of a relationship, which begins and ends, presented in, as the title would suggest, 185 beautifully presented dictionary definitions, such as

autonomy, n.

“I want my books to have their own shelves,” you said, and that’s how I knew it would be okay to live together.

The fact that the book is arranged in order of alphabetical entry means that it can move around in time, going from a moment of simple joy, to excitement to despair.  For example, it had never occurred to me how similar “catalyst” and “catharsis” are as words, but also how differently they sum up beginnings and endings of relationships.

There are enough little familiarities in this novel to take it out of the abstract and into the everyday pattern of our easily remembered lives.  For me, the best of these was the way you get to “know” the people through their online dating profiles, even though you will never meet them, when their profiles stay up there for months, or even years.

However, for the most part, the moving around in time, together with the vagueness surrounding the central relationship itself, gives the book a poetic feel.   There are the usual tensions in the relationship – one of the protagonists is more logical and grounded, the other more outgoing and disorganised.  There are more than hints of darkness behind why the relationship runs into problems, but the book never becomes truly dark; this is not a book of whys and wherefores and all those mundane details of the specific relationship. 

After all, I am sure we all know the story.  We’ve all lived it, haven’t we? (I loved you, you loved me? And we were happy ever after, until one of us died. Or it fell apart.)

Like poetry, the interesting feature of this book is that we can project whatever relationship it was of ours that ended onto the shape of this.  We can live it ourselves, because the pattern is so common and fundamental to all of us.

This book reminded me of the TED talks by the anthropologist Helen Fisher that I have been listening to, on the chemistry of the brain when we fall in love.  It was interesting to see how far we fall into the grip of these chemicals, and how the pain and joy that love causes in us, which make us feel so special and alive, are common to all of us.  I particularly like the way Helen Fisher always remains involved in the human-ness of the people she is studying and I enjoy the way she intersperses her work with various pieces of literature from across the ages.  It reminds me that love is not just chemistry, although a lot of it is.  I’m definitely interested in the science behind romantic love; I think it is one more thing for us to understand about ourselves.  And I think understanding as much as we can about ourselves, complicated beings that we are, is both interesting and important, as I read here the other day:

Unless we make peace with our past, it will haunt us forever.

http://mummytries.wordpress.com/2013/12/06/caught-between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place/

I think there are two kinds of understanding: a logical sense, and also in the sense of being at peace and “one-ness” with what you know, which is not necessarily something with an argument.  I like this book as being something that touches on the latter.

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21 Comments

  1. This sounds like a truly fascinating read Denise, something very unusual and I would imagine quite gripping. I love the concept of using the format of dictionary definitions to tell a love story. Thanks for another great book review 🙂

    • It was gripping – it used language and effect to get to you rather than any kind of chronology. So one minute you’d be reading about something mundane and everyday, that we can all relate to, then the next entry would be all about one character saying to the other, “It’s over,” and even that was done in a couple of different contexts, which was interesting.

    • There are two very distinct characters… but as they don’t progress in actions in the usual novelistic sense, the story is kind of not in order. In fact, it was rather an odd book review to write because it was difficult to hold onto anything concrete to get me started.

    • It was sweet – and very quick to read as well, with the pages being so sparsely laid out. But memorable because you could project whatever you wanted from your own life onto it!

      • I love that. I think my favourite kind of fiction is that which brings something a little bit more than just a simple story – ie, Michael Frayn’s Headlong which educated me a bit in Dutch art history and the Spanish Inquisition! But also books that play with genres and give the reader space to interpret in their own unique way. I miss literature. The only books I’ve felt able to read since having little ones are fast paced or psychological thrillers – pure and easy escapism!!

  2. I wonder if this is the book that came out not too long ago (a few years back maybe)? I may have had this on a paper TR list, back in the old days before there was Goodreads. Thanks for reminding me of it. It really does sound very unusual and creative. I’ll look for it again.

  3. It’s on my list now. Thanks Denise. (I just love that feature where I can simply open a new window in my browser, go to my local library, paste the title you’ve recommended, and request it–in a few days it will be waiting on a shelf with my name on it!)

    By the way, a long time ago, before people were talking about brain chemistry and emotions, a sardonic priest said to me that from everything he had ever observed, people in love are in a high state of temporary insanity.

    • That is very, very astute. I don’t think it’s temporary though. I think in the aftermath it gets worse. And I also think that the experience alters your neural pathways permanently!!

      • It does permanently alter one, I’m sure. But since it’s so common to the human experience, I guess I wouldn’t call it insanity. And I wouldn’t have wanted to live my life without it. It would be liking living in the gray tones of Kansas, instead of the full color of Oz (and Oz is where all the adventure happens!)

      • Feels like insanity to me when I look back on myself!

        I wish I had colour again. I’m not ready yet but will appreciate it all the more for having to wait.

      • I know what you mean–maybe it’s a good kind of insanity? I made “crazy” decisions and took risks which pushed me out of my comfort zone and stretched me into being a more giving/loving person.

        And yes, there is a special kind of appreciation that only comes when we have to wait for something.

      • I guess for me I feel it was insanity because in the end the other person took it the wrong way 😦 It makes me feel embarrassed looking back on it. But… also looking back in the light of what you have written, my intentions were always good. So maybe it is something for me to be proud of after all.

      • There’s no way not to feel embarrassed for me, when someone takes my intentions the wrong way. But the other person’s taking it the wrong way might have been that person’s insanity/neurosis.

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