Review: The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan

Title: The Lover's Dictionary
Author: David Levithan
Pages: 211
Genre: Modern Fiction
Release Date: January 4th, 2011
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Source: Personal Copy

The ups and downs of a modern relationship are revealed through a series of dictionary entries. Each vignette provides insight into both the big events and everyday moments of a nameless couple.

Let me start out by saying people are either going to really love or hate The Lover's Dictionary. I am definitely in the "finished the whole thing in one sitting" category. As a lover of words, I reveled in the sentence structures, descriptive images, and the double meanings. To get the full experience, I pulled out my dusty OED and put it to use as I read in order to truly understand and try to grasp every meaning possible. Also wonderful for vocabulary building.

Levithan has created a very interactive reading experience, which I can see as off-putting for some. Each entry demands something of the reader. The entire work is a giant puzzle of word definitions and double entendres, while simultaneously revealing clues to each character's profile along the way. If you go into this work with the idea that it will be a quick read you will either a) be pleasantly surprised at the complexity or b) finish disappointed, having missed out on the full experience.

Some reviewers have made the complaint that the vignettes and the book itself are too short, but I see it more as expanded poetry. Levithan uses such sparse, raw language that just begs to be parsed. The snippets of moments and the disordered story line mimic a person's memory, which is alluded to in the definition of circuitous, "We do not divulge our histories chronologically. It's not like we can sit each other down and say, 'Tell me what happened,' and then rise from the conversation knowing everything." Remembering the little moments of one's life in perfect order is a daunting task, one that is sure to go uncompleted.

My favorite overall elements were the anonymity of the couple and the keeping of the significant other's gender neutral. Leaving the characters up to reader interpretation makes placing oneself in the story easier. For me, I absolutely adore when an author can get in my head and writes something I can instantly relate to. Those 'wow, that's exactly how I feel' moments are best achieved through lean writing. I found this the case with one of the more comical entries, commonplace.

commonplace, adj.

It swings both ways, really.

I'll see your hat on the table and I'll feel such longing for you, even if you're only in the other room. If I know you aren't looking, I'll hold the green wool up to my face, inhale that echo of your shampoo and the cold air from outside.

But then I'll walk into the bathroom and find you've forgotten to put the cap back on the toothpaste again, and it will be this splinter that I just keep stepping on.

One major motif Levithan plays with is boundaries. The Lover's Dictionary is full of moments when things change and cross into new territory, specifically in regards to relationship categorization and what's acceptable to do at which stage. We witness the narrator's many moments of sudden realization of things like acceptance or regret.

It's very rare for me to find a book that I can, upon closing the cover, instantly say I want to reread. Maybe I was just in the right mood to enjoy this one. I praise The Lover's Dictionary for its simpleness, for its brevity. A longwinded backstory or pages of expository writing would do a disservice to both the characters and the reader. If nothing else, this book deserves to be checked out from the library at least. Overall, a very satisfying read. While its ranking is not even comparable to my beloved classics, I think The Lover's Dictionary is an exquisite example of experimental modern fiction.

Rating: 5/5


  1. Hi, thanks for the follow on Twitter and GFC.

    I have been wanting to read this one for awhile now. It's funny that you say that the reader will either love it or hate it, because I think the review I read two months ago said the same thing!

    Your header is lovely...old books and fresh flowers make for a suprising and aesthetic combination.

  2. Jennifer -

    Thanks for your thoughts and the header compliment!

    I had read such polarizing reviews before picking this up, that I wasn't sure if I would like it. That's always a fear with books that are considered experimental. Thankfully, this one met my expectations.

  3. I am a lover of super short stories and stories that land in some halfway place between poetry and prose and this book sounds perfect in about every way. i swear i've heard of this before, but your description of the book doesn't sound real familiar to me - either way, i'm going to read this one.

    -- ellen

  4. Ellen -

    I think you would especially like this one since you enjoy short stories. Short story readers have the "skills" necessary to get the most out of and enjoy minimal writing. There is something refreshing about having to search for all the meanings instead of having everything spelled out. I love re-reading short stories to see what I missed the first go around.

  5. Based on your review and the excerpt you shared, I think I would also be in the "read in one sitting" category! I've read other works by Levithan and like his style. Adding this one to my TBR!

  6. Meg -
    Thanks for stopping by! If you're a fan of Levithan's other works, I think you'd definitely enjoy this one. The only other book of his I've read is Dash and Lily's Book of Dares. I loved it! So when I saw he came out with this I had to grab it. Great author and experimental!

  7. I really liked this book, too, and especially loved the playfulness of the format. If you still have your copy, get it out and take a look at the publisher's logo on the spine. Usually FSG has triangular-shaped fish heads but for this book they made the fish heads heart-shaped. Subtle, but a nice touch when the design of the entire book complements the format, don't you think?

  8. Wow, I never noticed the change on the spine. Thanks for pointing that out! It's always nice to see such concern shown for a book...especially from the publisher's angle. A lot of times, the little details are what help take a book to a new level.


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