The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan

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It’s inaccurate to call David Levithan’s new book, The Lover’s Dictionary, a novel. You could call it a novella, or a long prose poem—but even that might be a stretch. The best term for it might be outside of literature altogether: It is a rhapsody, a meandering path through a love story, atemporal and altogether enchanting.

Levithan, a successful writer of young-adult novels, among them the brilliant Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist (co-written with Rachel Cohn), makes his foray into adult fiction with this slim volume, in which the concision of the YA form serves him well. Using the limitations of his conceit—a roster of words evoking the highs and lows of a romantic relationship—Levithan crafts a love affair as sharp, funny, and sad as any you’d find in an epic novel.

Spoiler: the relationship eventually falls apart. After all, the vast majority of love stories today end unhappily, and one has to wonder if today’s audiences can even digest a happy ending without finding it cloying. In this age of modern love, where marriage proposals are made on Facebook, divorces play out through Twitter, we are more circumspect about romance than we used to be. That strain is evident in Levithan’s knowing, nameless narrator, whose first entry, “aberrant, adj.” conveys the couple’s first delight at discovering how much they enjoyed each other’s company, but still carries this warning: “Measure the hope of that moment, that feeling. Everything else will be measured against it.”

A happy moment carries the expectation of further happiness in its back pocket, and as such, what proves delightful to the narrator in one moment will seem horrific in the next—his date’s heavy drinking is alternately adorable and disconcerting. Though what causes the breakup could be called a circumstance rather than a defining weakness, each dictionary entry suggests the narrator’s hopes for clarification—what do I call this act, this moment, this sadness?

punctuate, v.: A key to a successful relationship isn’t just in the words, it’s in the choice of punctuation. When you’re in love with someone, a well-placed question mark can be the difference between bliss and disaster, and a deeply respected period or a cleverly inserted ellipsis can prevent all kinds of exclamations.

The choice of punctuations, and of words to define this couple, demonstrate the nuanced, intelligently observed details of love’s triumphs and disappointments that have defined Levithan’s writing. In “brash, adj.,” the narrator marvels at the language of seduction.

“I want you to spend the night,” you said. And it was definitely your phrasing that ensured it… I loved the notion that the night was mine to spend, and I immediately decided to spend it on you.

Some are entries are acidly critical, of both the narrator and his partner, and they seem directly extracted from the dialogue of a vicious fight: “corrode, v.: I spent all this time building a relationship. Then one night I left the window open, and it started to rust.” A few leave the reader ambivalent as to whether this relationship should continue at all:

justice, n.: I tell you about Sal Kinsey, the boy who spit on me every morning for a month in seventh grade, to the point that I could no longer ride the bus… The next night, you tell me that you tracked down his office address. And not only that, you sent him a dozen roses, signing the card, It is so refreshing to see that you’ve grown up to be fat, desperate, and lonely. Anonymous, of course.

Since Levithan’s narrative is achronological, the characters can seem to know too much, too soon; all the entries in the “dictionary” seem to be written in the same post-bliss, mournful tone. Just seven entries into the book, “akin, adj.” gives us a lover full of doubts rather than hope: “Did it matter that we both drank coffee at night and both happened to go to Barcelona the summer after our senior year?… Weren’t these facts just placeholders until the long view could truly assert itself?” But then again, The Lover’s Dictionary isn’t about how lessons were learned, and in what order—it’s a documentation of facts, memories, war wounds. And anyone who has been in a romantic relationship will recognize themselves in Levithan’s lovers, from the tiniest details of merging bookshelves and quiet afternoons to the largest anxieties of sexual inadequacy and romantic reciprocity. Levithan’s rhapsody is just that: an ode to desire written as an account of the traces such desire leaves behind. “When I die, your memories of me will be my greatest accomplishment. Your memories will be my most lasting impression.”

Jessica Freeman-Slade is a writer who reviews and blogs on book culture at The [TK] Review, and has written reviews for The Millions, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Specter Magazine, among others. She works as an editor at Random House and lives in Morningside Heights. More from this author →