Love in Pieces | The Reader’s Shelf

These novels use a fractured narrative style to represent the interior struggles of modern-day lovers.

In The Lover’s Dictionary (Picador. 2012. ISBN 9781250002358), David Levithan refracts his account of a couple’s love affair into minute, shard-like fragments that he frames as alphabetically ordered dictionary definitions. Each definition represents the thoughts of an unnamed first-person narrator as he reviews his sometimes-fraught dealings with a similarly unnamed “you.” Added together, these definitions represent the variegated experience of love in all its highs (“beguile,” “champagne,” “ebullient”) and lows (“belittle,” “doldrums,” “misgivings”). In a clever move, Levithan’s oblique, nonlinear structure puts his readers into the uncertain position of his yearning, insecure narrator who must constantly parse his lover’s words and actions for clues about the state and direction of their relationship. READ-ALIKE: Xiaolu Guo’s novel A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers uses the definitions of English words to mark the growing attraction and lingering cultural differences between a student from China and her British lover.

In chemical terms, Weike Wang’s Chemistry (Vintage. 2018. ISBN 9780525432227) would have to be described as acidic. The novel’s unnamed protagonist, a Chinese American graduate student, is both wounded and wounding. The only child of two immigrant parents in a toxic marriage, she feels crushed by her parents’ heavy expectations, the demands of her rigorous chemistry program, and her seemingly saintly boyfriend constantly pressuring her to marry him. All this leads to a breakdown in which she abandons her academic career but feels unable to move forward anywhere else in her personal or romantic life. Her unsettled mind finds a counterpart in the novel’s structure that suggests a notebook filled with pointed anecdotes, bitter jokes, and pertinent scientific facts. Wang’s protagonist may be aimimpany as she frantically treads water. READ-ALIKE: Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation resembles Chemistry in subject, structure, and tone.

Matthew Dicks’s Twenty-One Truths About Love (St. Martin’s Griffin. 2021. ISBN 9781250782939) suggests a pointillist portrait although it is composed entirely of lists rather than dots of color. They represent the daily tasks, observations, and worries of one Daniel Mayrock as he endures a year trying to stay financially afloat while running a bookstore. His anxieties rise exponentially when he learns to his dismay that his wife is expecting a child. Through his jottings, Mayrock comes across as a wisecracking, self-deprecating nebbish who both disdains and yearns for the prudence and practical skills he sees in others. Faced with a world that disturbs him, he uses humor as a defensive barrier, even against the wife in whom he refuses to confide. Though Mayrock’s shtick is undeniably amusing, he desperately needs new material. The question is, will he find it in time? READ-ALIKE: Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s uniquely structured memoir Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life contains multiple lists amid its charming reflections on one unexceptional person’s daily existence.

Alain de Botton is best known for his many nonfiction works that apply insights derived from literature, philosophy, and psychology to the careful examination of ordinary life. He puts his talents to good use in his novel The Course of Love (S. & S. 2017. ISBN 9781501134517). Here he explores the nuances of a representative couple’s relationship in the years after they fall in love and get married. Rabih and Kristen, two educated, moderately successful professionals living in Edinburgh, set up a household, raise children, survive infidelity, and generally carry on as best they can. De Botton alternates his description of the rich particularities of their lives with a kind of Greek chorus, a series of italicized passages of commentary written with the pronoun “we” that generalize Rabih’s and Kristen’s experiences into something universal. The philosophical de Botton is most at home in these passages where he distills the messiness of life into pithy aphorisms. READ-ALIKE: The Course of Love forms a thematic quartet with de Botton’s other early novels: On Love, The Romantic Movement, and Kiss & Tell.

In The Great Concert of the Night (New York Review of Books. 2020. ISBN 9781681373959), Jonathan Buckley rivals Alain de Botton in his fondness for high culture and his lapidary prose, yet adds an autumnal melancholy all his own. The novel is told in brief vignettes that represent a journal kept by David, the refined curator of an eccentric Victorian-era museum. As he goes about his quiet year, his thoughts return repeatedly to the time he spent with his now-deceased lover Imogen, an actress in European art films. Like these cinematic works—the book is named for one—Buckley’s novel has a high polish, a stately pace, and concern to impress both aesthetically and intellectually. Not much happens outwardly in David’s life, but his mind is ever active and as strikingly furnished with historical curiosities as his museum. Buckley has written a lovely and elegiac novel that demands to be savored slowly, one beautifully written page at a time. READ-ALIKE: Jhumpa Lahiri’s calmly contemplative Whereabouts is similarly written as a series of elegant vignettes.

This column was written by Steven Jablonski, Collection Development Librarian, Skokie Public Library, Illinois.

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