As the editorial director at Scholastic, David Levithan is surrounded by emotional stories about adolescents. Being overexposed to such hyperbolic feelings about
feelings could easily turn a writer off pursuing such ventures himself — despite the secrets he may have picked up along the way. But Levithan is also the author
of several young-adult novels, like the bestselling Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist
, which was adapted into a film. His latest novel, The Lover's Dictionary
, is his first about adults, and admirably evocative of the pleasures and anguish of love.
The book is a charming, slim volume that feels much fuller than its 209 pages, functioning as a universally specific tale about a passionate couple. Unlike most literary love stories (and unlike real life), where the plot is driven forward in the context of other events and goings-on, The Lover's Dictionary is about a relationship, and nothing else. Our narrator is anonymous and genderless, and so is his or her love; the two of them could be young, old, gay, straight. Levithan plants a few suggestive hints as to the dynamic, but depending on who you are, when you might be reading it, and how your last relationship ended or your current one began, the take-away is entirely subjective. The story is also nonlinear, told out of chronological order and in alphabetical dictionary form — a single word opens a vignette that functions as a flashback or an anecdote:
"ubiquitous, adj. When it's going well, the fact of it is everywhere. It's there in the song that shuffles into your ears. It's there in the book you're reading. It's there on the shelves of the store as you reach for a towel and forget about the towel. It's there as you open the door. As you stare off on the subway, it's what you're looking at. You wear it on the inside of your hat. It lines your pockets. It's the temperature. The hitch, of course, is that when it's going badly, it's in all the same places."
A device like this could be a tired gimmick, but Levithan spins it into a literary pyrotechnic that feels organic. As he rearranges time with a soft push, the memory of an event will be introduced before the event itself has been explained. The hairline fractures of the liaison bloom into an incurable infection for a few words. They've moved in, someone cheated, it's almost over. A few phrases later, the couple are in the first flush of infatuation, having sex all day, triumphant over their mistakes: "cadence, n. 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."