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Book Review: The Lover’s Dictionary: A Novel by David Levithan

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Using clever definitions for words from “aloof” to “zenith,” David Levithan sketches an ill-fated love story in The Lover’s Dictionary: A Novel (2011, Picador). Our protagonists, whose names we never learn, meet via an online dating site and in many ways seem to be puzzle pieces made to fit together, one extroverted and the other shy, but theirs is not an idyllic love story. The details of their romance and courtship are revealed in short, non-chronological bursts and we learn rather quickly that all is not well with this pairing.

The decision to use the dictionary format may seem a bit gimmicky and one wonders why it was chosen. The author explains its use in an entry at the midpoint:

ineffable, adj.

These words will ultimately end up being the barest of reflections, devoid of the sensations words cannot convey. 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.

This reflexive moment is apt, although maybe a bit anachronistic. The entries read like Twitter updates or Facebook posts; a series of supremely specific and intimate details about these two lives with very little context. We know the depths of these character’s souls without knowing anything about them, really.

This isn’t necessarily a drawback of the book, but it does seem to place it in a very modern context. Structuring the story as a dictionary, rather than a series of online posts, seems an odd attempt to place this modern story in another time. Do they even print dictionaries any more? As a narrative device, though, it does allow the male narrator to more subtly have the upper hand. It is through his eyes that we see events unfold and he is given the privilege to comment on them, with some entries being sarcastic and others waxing poetic.

This short book makes you stop and take notice of the words that we choose to describe each other, our lives, and love. It is heartfelt, honest, and raw; hallmarks of a true romance.

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About Courtney Cable