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The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer

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Seeing the general positive feedback from bloggers I picked up The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer (see Ed’s January Magazine review here, Mark’s excellent intereview with the author here, and the Bookslut review here). I value the opinions of these bloggers more than I do the Today Show Book Club and they didn’t let me down. The Confessions of Max Tivoli is a thoroughly enjoyable work of imagination and literary talent. I highly recommend it.

As the title suggests, the book purports to be the written diary of one Max Tivoli (a “Note On the Text” at the end of the book indicates the diary was found in an attic in 1947). Max is no ordinary person, however, but one whose physical growth runs backward. He was born an old man and instead of growing older he grows younger. While his body moves in reverse his mental and emotional growth is “normal.”

Greer presents this with a certain amount of mystery, focusing on the impact of the birth rather than an attempt at scientific explanation. From the very beginning the voice of Max comes through and establishes itself as the narrator of this tale; we see everything from his perspective. It is Greer’s writing that pulls us in and allows us to suspend our disbelief in order to enjoy the story. He quickly establishes the melancholic but stoic tone that runs throughout the work. From the opening line, “We are each the love of someone’s life,” we understand that this is a love story, but it is also a tragedy. Greer establishes the emotional setting before the physical one. Here is an early self-description from Max:

A mooncalf, a changeling; a thing so out of joint with the human race that I have stood in the street and hated every man in love, every widow in her long weeds, every child dragged along by a loving dog. Drunk on gin, I have sworn and spat at passing strangers who took me for the opposite of what I was inside – an adult when I was a child, a boy now that I am an old man. I have learned compassion since then, and pity passerby a little, as I, more than anyone, know what they have to live through

Greer does an equally good job of capturing the sights and sounds of time and place. Max is born in 1871 in San Fransisco and Greer weaves the story of that city into Max’s life. I have never been to the City by the Bay and know little of its history, but reading Greer feels like history. The people, the culture, the clothes, the architecture, the historic events they all come alive. Max’s life is impacted by the city and its history as well, whether it is the earthquake or the cholera outbreak. It is this melding of time and place with emotions that make the novel such a compelling read. Greer’s skillful use of language recreates a lost world while at the same time inventing a fantastic character to inhabit that world.

The narrative thrust of the story gets its power from the relationships at its heart. At the age of seventeen, although he seems a middle aged man, Max falls in love with a thirteen year old girl named Alice. When Max’s father disappears suddenly his mother takes them back to their original home. Their financial situation requires they rent out the ground floor and Alice and her mother are the tenants. As you might imagine in a story like this one, despite Max’s devotion things do not turn out well with Alice. Alice and her mother leave San Fransisco intent on never seeing Max again.

The only other relationship of equal importance in Max’s life is the one with his childhood friend Hughie. Hughie, the son of Max’s tutor, is one of the few people who know Max’s secret. And although Hughie ages in the normal way, he and Max become lifelong friends. Since watching the events as they play out is an important part of the pleasure of reading this work I wont spoil the details, but it is through the inter-tangled lives of Max, Hughie, and Alice that Greer’s themes of love and loss play out.

Max’s life is given meaning by his obsessive search for Alice and earning her love. Hughie’s life seems defined by his friendship with Max, although Max often seems oblivious to his role. Alice’s relationship with Max and Hughie, or any other for that matter, seem to threaten her own identity so she often seeks to escape. And of course Max’s unique development provides an additional layer of obstacles and emotions.

Greer has produced a multi-layered work and one that would likely reward multiple readings. One can read it just for the pleasure of the language. As I noted above, Greer masterfully sets the emotional tone while capturing the physical setting. He also weaves in quite a few words of wisdom or bon mots using the accumulated experiences of Max as he looks back on his life. As a result one could re-read Greer in order to more fully appreciate the themes he lays out. There are a number of interesting ideas touched on including the tension between societal expectations and one’s own identity; the loss of self in loving another; and the way we can be blind to our impact on those around us to name a few.

The Confessions of Max Tivoli is one of the more enjoyable novels I have read recently. Its mix of language, emotion, imagination, and narrative is a rare feat in my experience. Given that it is less than 300 pages and eminently readable, it richly rewards the short time it takes to read. I highly recommend it.

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