The Reading Room: Valentine’s Vocabulary
By Miranda Marraccini '12, Staff Writer
I’m not a stickler for seasonal accuracy — I wear my Halloween socks at all times of the year and I don’t mind hearing Christmas songs in the dubious days just before Thanksgiving. But if you’re going to read anything over Valentine’s Day, “The Lover’s Dictionary” is singularly appropriate. By turns romantic, cynical, sentimental, angsty and bewildered, this slimmest of novels attempts to encapsulate the everyday reality of a relationship.

To call this book a novel isn’t entirely accurate. As its title hints, there’s no linear narrative here. Instead Levithan structures the story as a series of dictionary entries for words like “champagne,” “dissonance,” “lackluster” and “narcissism.” They vary in length from less than one word (the entry for “celibacy” reads: “n/a”) to nearly two pages, and the connection to the theme of the development and decay of a romance is not always obvious. For example, for “gravity,” Levithan’s unnamed narrator muses: “I imagine you saved my life. And then I wonder if I’m just imagining it.”

Despite this meandering approach, some semblance of a story emerges in parts, as in a film in which the scenes are shown in the wrong order. The narrator falls heedlessly, passionately in love with a woman whose name we never learn. They have lots of sex and more than a few arguments (the toothpaste tube cap is a particular point of contention) before a revelation of infidelity threatens something that the narrator was never entirely sure of anyway.

That sounds vaguely like the plot of lots other books, and it is, but Levithan’s dictionary device is original without seeming gimmicky. At first, the sparse pages, with their small rectangles of text, look and sound closer to poetry than to prose. Nearly all of them follow a similar format: an everyday observation or anecdote, followed by a reflection on its significance in the fictional relationship, capped by some revelation about life or love or life after love. One of the narrator’s more interesting reflections calls into question the enterprise of writing such a story: “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.”

However, Levithan’s attempts at profundity do not always succeed in sounding profound. “There is no word for the recipient of the love,” Levithan writes in the entry for “lover.” “There is only a word for the giver.” I suppose he is thinking of something along the lines of “lovee.” But there is already a word for that; it’s “beloved,” although our narrator is too absorbed in his own romantic philosophizing to realize it.

Levithan’s characters, aiming for “adorably quirky,” can also come off as too-cute, spouting perfectly pat observations like (in reference to an unbalanced bookcase): “‘If our shelves were a seesaw, my things would be stuck in the air.’” It might be an ideal line of dialogue for an indie movie starring Zooey Deschanel, but it can become cloying when repeated over the course of a novel.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are worrying moments of teenage-sounding angst, as when one of the protagonists accuses the other: “You went and broke our lives.” While I know that fully grown adults, too, are entitled to their moments of theatrical despair, I can’t help hearing echoes of the young adult lit that Levithan is known for (e.g. “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist”). This is his first book for grownups, and the stuffing is poking out from the upholstery at the seams.

For the definition of “love,” Levithan’s narrator just writes: “I’m not going to even try.” It’s candid and defeated, but not quite true. He does try, for over 200 pages and 67 word entries, with very real sincerity, and all the usual inadequacy. It’s sweet, how hard he tries, while trying not to look as if he is. Sweet enough to make up for his imperfections as a narrator, and to make this book worth the quick read that it is, if only on Valentine’s Day.

Issue 14, Submitted 2011-02-08 23:15:29