The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan

I’ve been reading more adult books to temper some of the less-than-amazing YA books I’ve read lately. It’s not that there’s anything horrible, per se, but nothing has been that spectacular for me in a while. Perhaps it’s a case of needing a little reading change.

I picked up a copy of David Levithan’s first adult novel The Lover’s Dictionary at ALA Midwinter, a little reluctantly. I am familiar with Levithan’s YA offerings, and I’m a fan of the books he edits at Scholastic. I gave this one a whirl.

I can’t give a real plot description for this book, since it’s not a plot-driven book. It’s not really a character-driven book, either. This is an extended letter from one person in a relationship to another, and the set up is really the point of the story: it’s a dictionary.

Each page begins with a word that we’re familiar with — bolster, elegy, only, and yesterday being a few examples — and then there is a short description for the word, told through an episode in the relationship. Perfunctory, for example, is a short one that reads “I get to sign some of your Christmas cards, but others I don’t.” Other words have longer explanations, some spanning a few pages. But the entries are short, much like these moments in any romantic relationship are, and the book reads quite fast. Because I wanted to savor it, I read this one in many sittings, over the course of a few days. Since there aren’t any character or story arcs in Levithan’s book, this is a great book to read at any pace, fast or slow.

This is a sweet book, and I think it really captures both the ups and downs of a relationship. It’s at times a little over-the-top for my romantic reading inklings, but these moments are countered with tension in the relationship, too.

Although I liked the book, the story didn’t do much for me. I think I liked the execution and style, the exercise in trying a dictionaryesque approach to story telling, much more than what was contained within. I found it kind of thin otherwise, something fairly forgettable. There are some excellent lines in the book, and some things worth quoting reading aloud, but don’t go in expecting much in terms of substance. This is the kind of book I’ll reread passages from when I’m looking for a little writing inspiration.

While Levithan is a well-known YA author, this is not a book for teens. There’s an interesting discussion on one of the YALSA blogs about this book, and how there’s question of why this wouldn’t be one worth cross-shelving (that is, having a copy in adult fiction and one in teen fiction). But for me, there’s no reason for this. Sure, the characters in The Lover’s Dictionary are adults; however, the reason this isn’t a book for teens is that this is a story about an adult relationship. It’s a love letter, sure, and there are teens who will read this and love this. But the fact of the matter is, it’s a very limited appeal to teens who simply do not have this sort of understanding yet. They’re not mature enough to appreciate what this is, and frankly, there are many better books for teens that are love letters between romantic partners. It’s less an issue of sexuality (there’s not much) or of language (again, not much) but more an issue of development and understanding of the adult side of life. Teens will get there on their own; we don’t need to push them there. Those who are ready will find their way to the adult fiction area themselves and discover this.

Pass this off to your fans of romantic reads or books that are simply a little different. It’s not standard Levithan, but I think it might drive adult readers to check out his other works.

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  1. says

    Great review. I've been wondering whether or not to pick up a copy and I think I've decided to check one out from the library. I love David's YA work, so I'm really interested in reading this "adult" story. And the dictionary-style sounds intriguing. Thanks! 😀

  2. says

    I'm reading this slowly right now. Savoring it, more like. I think it's an absolutely phenomenal way to capture the smallness and largeness of love. Funnily enough, though, I found it in the YA section, but it was the only copy there, and so I wonder if it happened to be misshelved…? Ah well, I'm glad it was. :)

  3. says

    I have a deep, biased affection for epistolary novels. I hadn't heard of this book, but will happily put it in my library queue now. Thanks!

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