This is a wonderful book. Written as a dictionary, using carefully chosen words and their definitions, in alphabetical order, it tells the love story of a New York couple who meet through an internet dating site. They remain nameless (although we discover the narrator is male) and so could be any couple, anywhere, gay or straight.
This story, with adults as the protagonists, is a departure for Levithan who has written a string of books for the young adult market, but like others in his backlist, this book started as a Valentine’s Day story. Through using the absolute minimum number of words, Levithan manages to convey character, story, plot and setting with amazing skill. Other, less concise writers, should take note of how little you actually need. It is clever and witty, but also heartbreaking and tender and made this reviewer sigh with recognition; quite something for a book of only 211 pages, the majority of which are empty of words. We are with the couple from the very beginning of their love story and stay with them for the next couple of years, but the story doesn’t unfold chronologically. Instead, we see snapshots, the defining moments of their lives together, sometimes happy and at other times, not. This isn’t sugary sweet loveliness, but the portrayal of a real relationship, warts and all where lovers both amaze and then crushingly disappoint each other.
Levithan’s greatest skill is in the empty spaces he leaves in the narrative for the reader to insert themselves and their own experiences. The addressing of the reader personally through the use of second person adds to the feeling of intimacy.
This I loved:
“Gingerly, adj. You leave the phone on beside you as you fall asleep. I sit in my bed and listen to your breathing until I know you are safe, until I know you no longer need me for the night.”
‘Confluence, n’ made me laugh. This definition covers the scene where their families meet for the first time:
“My mother tried; yours not so much. We kept talking and talking, filling the room with words trying to make a party out of our voices.”
I’m sure this is a scene many will recognise.
It is the way Levithan pounces on the minutiae of living together for the first time that makes this story universal. I think it was Frank Cottrell Boyce who said the more specific books are, the more universal they become and that is so true for this story. In ‘Commonplace, adj’ the narrator says:
“But then I’ll walk into the bathroom and find you’ve forgotten to put the cap back on the toothpaste and it will be this splinter that I just keep stepping on.”
Your reviewer could go on quoting from the book as there were so many sections that were worthy of it, but instead I suggest you just read it.
Any Cop?: Absolutely yes. I’m sure some will say that this isn’t really a novel and is instead a gimmicky book for desperate lovers to buy for Valentine’s day, but it really isn’t. It’s an honest and true account of a couple starting their lives together and I loved it.