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
“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.”
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.