Book Review: The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan

The Lover's DictionaryThe Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan

My rating: ★★★

Patience, I build up to a point:

Not only do I live in a extrovert-valued society, but a very sexual one: sex still sells, and as discussions mount, more people are (hopefully) accepting the fact that more than one orientation exists. It lives in our media and news, and it is natural, if only because we are human, to form strong emotions from intimacy.

Then there is me: an awkward puzzle piece that doesn’t know her place. I know people who praise their significant others (good for them) or dump a nasty truckload of their relationship garbage when things turn sour. I’m not positive if these people want me to partake in their joy, console, or relate and participate in a woo-hoo or moan-and-groan conversation. (When consulted, I am experienced in offering my honest observations on love problems. This promptly upsets the other party and I get yelled at. Honesty, I learned, is not the best policy. When in doubt: lie.)

However uncomfortable to discuss, I snugly fit into the smaller fraction of introverts and aromantic/”asexuals.” The point is: sometimes I don’t get it. Just as many don’t understand my odd tendencies, I don’t understand the wants, needs, and obsessions others have for such intimate relationships — I grasp circumstance and interactions. Friendship is good enough for me, and anything beyond that is a territory I possess no desire or passion for. Likewise, I couldn’t be sure if I’d “get” The Lover’s Dictionary.

autonomy, n.
“I want my books to have their own shelves,” you said, and that’s how I knew it would be okay to live together.

I raise attention to this context because most who adore The Lover’s Dictionary personally connect — that is why they enjoy it. This book resonates with people’s emotional memories, which excludes me entirely. Its arm creeps out as a finger distends, swirls the memory pool, and all at once: old or current relationship(s) pop out and that emotional cord gets plucked. I understand this much; blame your brain. It stores all those happy and bitter or plain pissed-off memories, and watch out for what it will toss: a whole spectrum can be hurled as a range of feelings storm through. Pleasant or horrid, it doesn’t matter and it’s automatic.

With all that I said, and considering how I tantrum’d over the last two Levithan books I read, I’m surprised I don’t dislike this. I don’t love The Lover’s Dictionary, but I do — at the very least — like it, which is good enough. In the past, my chief complaint has centered on Levithan’s lackluster and contrived effect, resulting in shallow characters and my own disappointment. What I have grown to expect from David Levithan’s skill is tantamount to bad coffee: it’s weak, and I’ll devour very little. Unlike the coffee, I’ll take in the entire book, all right, but I can dive deeper in kiddy pools. I read Levithan’s work in under an hour and walk away unconvinced of any character conviction.

That established, it feels nice to say that — for the first time — Levithan convinced me. I believed these were two people in a relationship! Wow, Levithan, let’s celebrate; I applaud this moment.

However, I find prejudice in the perspective. I think the narrator presents himself too ‘clean-cut,’ as in all or most of the failures landed upon his partner. (Or perhaps the narrator is female? It’s difficult to ascertain, and sometimes it feels like the narrator switches between the couple.) I can’t say I took issue with this, because it seems genuine. How often do we scrutinize our own contributions to arguments, our miscommunications? Many of us prefer to feel clean of fault and place that burden on the other person. Much honesty breathes this story into reality, but…

I don’t care for the overall arrangement. The idea of exposing the ups and downs of a relationship (defining, you might say) in dictionary format is quirky. If well-executed, you could have a very peculiar success. But — and here I go morphing into an ugly monster, claws showing and ready to madden the fan base — Levithan’s work needs time and polish. I still spy that unrefined edge to his structure where I’d rather see smooth class. There’s not one particular example to quote, as I see it in every sentence. I won’t pretend I’m a fan of his work, so why do I read David Levithan’s books? I suppose, if anything, I want to watch him grow as a writer while hoping to catch a glimpse of what makes him so damn popular.

Love, like most relationships, can feel daunting and uncertain at times. What attracts a person to another may end up becoming that one thing the person loathes. (500) Days of Summer‘s Tom Hansen expressed this: “I love this heart-shaped birthmark she has on her neck” turned to “I hate her cockroach-shaped splotch on her neck.” Levithan presents the topsy-turvy aspect, the “I love you, but sometimes I hate you” conflict. He highlights the scary leap couples take, and those decisions that either strengthen or tear down the life they’ve built together.

If you’re a Tom Hansen, or know a Tom Hansen, this book will better suffice as an object to batter and deface with crass card greetings — wait for the train to rush by and some wreckage to clear. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone experiencing love problems, but if you’re in a content place, in love, or in love with the idea of love: yes, I recommend this book. I’m not crazy about The Lover’s Dictionary myself, but no harm came from reading it.

flux, n.
The natural state. Our moods change. Our lives change. Our feelings for each other change. Our bearings change. The song changes. The air changes. The temperature of the shower changes.
Accept this. We must accept this.

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Quarterly Reading Challenge #5 (Books 6-10)

My e-mail has shot up to an unpleasant number and I’ve considered nuking my inbox. I’d like to say I’ve been busy with important real-life details, but even those have semi-spiraled out to a point beyond taming. Rather, I’ve been busy doing the usual, which involves anything I consider a distraction. Yet I implore: academics take some priority.

Partially consumed by Life’s sharp, nondiscriminatory teeth–swallowed and nearly eroded by its stomach acid–I briefly emerge. A mountain of schoolwork awaits review this weekend, as finals live in the future of next week. I feel diminished to a high schooler when I say, “Studying? Eww.” To succeed, my reading obsession calls for an interlude and I have difficulty accepting that (obviously). Since last Sunday, I have zipped through seven books, but in my defense: three were children’s books, one a short Lorca collection, and another a graphic novel. (If you want to include last Saturday, I have read ten.) Also in my defense: despite study time, I am no closer to grasping conic section formulas than I was a week ago. Math is always a cruel beast, and I doubt half of it will apply to my future job.

“Wow, glad I knew how to locate the foci to your parabolic-shaped Scabies rash,” said no one.

But here I am, ready to list off the remaining five books for the fifth YA quarterly challenge. To see books 1-5, click here. I commence: Continue reading

Boy Meets Boy meets Raya

Boy Meets BoyBoy Meets Boy by David Levithan
My rating: ★★

In the words of Tony: “I honestly couldn’t believe that someone like you could exist, or even a town like yours could entirely exist.” If I pretend this is written in the present tense then I can say that I wholeheartedly agree. Reading this felt too out of touch with any kind of reality I’m familiar with for me to completely buy into Paul’s story, but this is not to say that Boy Meets Boy isn’t likable. I can easily point out that Paul lives in a peculiar town where gay teens seem to outnumber the straight kids, where tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality and cross-dressing are part of the norm, where the star quarterback is also the homecoming queen–the list goes on. And wouldn’t it be great if we did live in a world where society didn’t judge or treat people differently based on their sexual orientation? Or their preference of dress (drag queen Infinite Darlene, for example)? So I can understand why some people, especially LGBT teens, might enjoy escaping into such a story.

And in any case, isn’t escapism a reason to read? I love shoving my face into pages of good books and enveloping myself in the lives of characters. But I won’t lie: it is difficult to ground myself in Paul’s world because I find the amount of approval regarding sexuality overwhelmingly different from what I see and expect in real life. Everything struck me as simple and thus not quite believable. However, there are other aspects to this story that placed a question mark above my head–not out of confusion, but out of “in what instance would this actually happen?” moments.

Regardless how minor (supportive secondary role) her character is, there’s Darlene:

Infinite Darlene doesn’t have it easy. Being both star quarterback and homecoming queen has its conflicts. And sometimes it’s hard for her to fit in.

I can entirely see why Infinite Darlene would have trouble fitting in, and for a multitudes of reasons… and none of those reasons are why Infinite Darlene has issues fitting in. The narration continues:

The other drag queens in our school rarely sit with her at lunch; they say she doesn’t take good enough care of her nails, and that she looks a little too buff in a tank top. The football players are a little more accepting, although there was a spot of trouble a year ago when Chuck, the second-string quarterback, fell in love with her and got depressed when she said he wasn’t her type.

(If “drag queens” were removed, the first half sounds like usual back talk I’d hear roaming the halls between girls in my grade school years.)

It took me a little by surprise. Needless to say, no school in which I attended or knew of in grades K-12 had a drag queen posse. Say if I had known or attended one that did, the group would have most likely faced incessant bullying and harassment by some students. I first thought Infinite Darlene’s misfit issues would be centered around her high testosterone-filled football team. How well would they accept a drag queen as a member on their team? Instead, she strolls through halls like a Queen Bee of Gossip and still holds down star quarterback position. If anything, it is her alpha-female, catty qualities and flair for drama that are more likely to make people fume.

As a side note: I think it’s great that Darlene is accepted for who she is. My thoughts and expectations surrounding how she might be received outside of Paul’s far-from-ordinary town, if anything, reflect my views of modern society.

Oh, and then this happens:

The gymnasium doors open and the cheerleaders come riding in on their Harleys. The crowd goes wild.

We are, I believe, the only high school in America with a biker cheerleading team. But I could be wrong. A few years ago, it was decided that having a posse of motorcycles gun around the fields and courts was a much bigger cheer-inducer than any pom-pom routine.

Paul carries on to describe the motorcycles forming into pyramid formation, etc. So how big is your school’s budget, Paul? Or were the parents so enthusiastic about their daughters pulling vehicle stunts that they rallied for the school board’s approval and paid for the bikes themselves? See, Levithan lost me here, because the environment threw me off. Is this realistic, even slightly? Not in my opinion, but on to topics that actually pertain more to the actual theme:

I’ve always known I was gay, but it wasn’t confirmed until I was in kindergarten.

It was my teacher who said so. It was right there on my kindergarten report card: PAUL IS DEFINITELY GAY AND HAS VERY GOOD SENSE OF SELF.

What is the likelihood of a teacher commenting on a student’s sexual orientation? Genuine curiosity, and I imagine the probability might vary from region to region? My elementary teachers limited their focus on classroom behavior and personality quirks. “Raya is a very quiet child,” “she is depriving the classroom of insight,” “speak more,” “diligent,” and so on with the usual, “attend class more often, please.” But never anything regarding “RAYA IS DEFINITELY STRAIGHT” or “SHE SHOWS NO INTEREST IN EITHER GENDER ON A ROMANTIC LEVEL.” Although.

I recall an odd instance in which my step-brother’s kindergarten teacher felt it necessary to inform my dad on how his step-son announced that he and another boy student were getting married. Nothing else–no hand-holding, no pecks on the cheek or hugging. Just a comment he made. Would she have called my dad if my step-brother had said he was marrying a female student? Unless a teacher is concerned about inappropriate behavior, I doubt it. So in short, I suppose this part struck me as unlikely but in the realm of possibility? I also don’t think a kid’s sexual preference is a teacher’s business to report on, so…

From there on in it was smooth ‘coming-out’ transition for Paul. His parents are supportive, he has (had?) a fantastic best friend who defends him at will, and lives–as said–in a generally welcoming community. While I think it’s great for a character to feel comfortable and so sure of who he is, I wonder how relatable this makes him. And it’s not like all book’s characters have similar accepting environments and confidence. Kyle, Paul’s ex-boyfriend, is utterly confused about what and who he likes while Tony (Paul’s gay BFF) is the child of religious parents and feels his ‘true self’ caged by his family’s intolerance. In a way, due to inferred inner (and outer) conflicts, I think Kyle and Tony would have made a more interesting couple than Paul and Noah.

When I take a look at the book overall, it is difficult for me to not compare it to real life, to society’s norms, and especially when gay marriage has been a hot topic for discussion in the U.S. At the same time, Levithan manages to accomplish what I think this book is meant to (for the most part). I don’t think Levithan wrote it with the intention of involving the negative beliefs regarding homosexuality that many people still hold. Rather, it’s a simple, sweet story about finding your first love and experiencing the bumpy ups and downs of high school life. Yes, the clash between the book’s environment versus real life issues catches my attention, but I mostly find Boy Meets Boy lackluster.

I didn’t feel too involved with the characters or particularly attached to Paul, and that’s what I often seek in books. Paul’s troubles are understandable although simple: he develops instant feelings for Noah that eventually grow, but then complications ensue for a short while as Kyle re-emerges into Paul’s life. In the mean time, his best friend Joni has decided that her new boyfriend is the best thing in existence and has left Paul feeling abandoned. It’s easy to spot the precursors that ultimately call for the “Everybody Freaks Out” chapter, which leaves Paul in a “My life’s in shambles!” sort of state. How is he going sort it all out? I’ll leave that mini-adventure for other readers to journey on, though I must say: I am disappointed, once again, by the lack of depth.

What I am pleased about, however, is that not everything and everyone end on perfect terms. Well, not entirely, anyway. In honesty, things still ended a little too hunky-dory for my taste, but they aren’t perfect–just on the road to “things are 95% decent and still headed upward,” I suppose. One thing that does (intensely) bother me: Joni. She is/was such a large portion of Paul’s life, so I feel like her and Paul needed to end on some kind of definitive terms (good or bad). Instead, despite that Joni does show up for Tony, I’m still left wondering what her feelings and thoughts are on de-friending Paul. I know this book isn’t focused on Paul and Joni’s relationship alone, but she is part of his life and thus deserved more recognition (or so I feel).

If a layer or two of depth had been added to the characters and their interactions, this book would have been more engaging to read.