by David Levithan
9780374193683, $23, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux (Macmillan), Pub. Date: January 2011
We were painting by numbers,
starting with the greens. Because
that happened to be our favorite color.
And that, we figured, had to mean something.
This novel is so quietly brilliant, it's a wonder David Levithan can stand his own talent. His first book published for adults, I see no reason why this can't be enjoyed by the same teenage audience that loves his Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist (written with Rachel Cohn, 9780375835339) and Will Grayson, Will Grayson (written with John Green, 9780525421580), favorites among the other YA novels he's written.
I have never lived anywhere but New York
or New England, but there are times when
I'm talking to you and I hit a Southern vowel, or
a word gets caught in a Southern truncation,
and I know it's because I'm swimming in your
cadences, that you permeate my very language.
The Lover's Dictionary is, according to Publisher's Marketplace, “an alphabetically episodic narrative that traces the ups and downs of an urban romance.” This is a truly genius way of telling a story that allows the reader to be at once an observer and a participant in this relationship. The couple is never identified as individuals by name or physical descriptions or a list of attributes. We come to know them slowly, as each definition unfolds a piece of the story and a piece of each person, and ultimately, a piece of you. There are words and definitions that make you laugh out loud, remembering a scene so similar in your own life. There are words that make you catch your breath as the ache of it settles deep within your chest.
"Most times, when I'm having sex, I'd rather be reading."
This was, I admit, a strange thing to say
on a second date. I guess I was just
on a second date. I guess I was just
giving you warning.
"Most times when I'm reading," you said, "I'd rather be having sex."
Though not told in a linear fashion, there was never a point when I questioned what was happening, and though the end doesn't leave you with a typical conclusion, these characters had so seamlessly blended with my own life, my own subconscious - despite my life being nothing like theirs - I still haven't felt as if the book is really finished, because these words live inside me now. Reading it felt like taking a shot of whiskey: the initial hit of flavor - the initial joy of beginning a truly great read; the burn down your throat - the gut reaction to a deeply meaningful passage; lighting a fire in your heart - remembering what in your own life made you feel this way; and the liquid warmth sliding all the way down into your belly - enjoying how that experience is a part of you now. It gave me goosebumps at times to read a definition about love or type of lovesick behavior that I always thought (was worried about) only happened to me; but in reading whatever that particular definition was, somehow knowing there is at least one other person in the world who has felt this way too, makes me not feel so alone.
I don't like it when you use my shampoo,
because then your hair smells like me, not you.
Especially to someone like me who collects new words as a hobby, using them to tell a story in this way was deeply meaningful. As a writer-of-sorts, I often have plot ideas, snippets for a story, a passing fancy that something might be really neat if done right and well. As a full-time reader, I constantly run the risk of reading the very brilliance I long to create. Jeanne Birdsall's The Penderwicks series was one such instance for me, and now David Levithan and The Lover's Dictionary.
You called to ask me when I was
coming home, and when I reminded you
that I wasn't coming home, you sounded
so disappointed that I decided to come home.
Like most things in life that make you laugh and make you cry, The Lover's Dictionary is bittersweet, but you know for sure that you weren't unaffected.