I first read Andrew Sean Greer’s second novel, The Confessions of Max Tivoli, way back when this blog started (it was one of my very first posts). I absolutely loved it then, and have considered it one of my favorite books since. Given that most people have read their favorite books more than once, I decided to read this one again. And while I have to confess it read differently the second time (I suppose any book with any depth should), it was no less moving or heartbreaking.
For those of you unfamiliar with this book, it tells the tale of a boy born in the body of an old man, who ages backwards physically but ages normally mentally, emotionally, and psychologically. When F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was made into a major motion picture, I was somewhat alarmed that Greer might have stolen from Fitzgerald. Well, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — he didn’t. The two literary works have very little in common, and there are fundamental differences even in some of the similarities between them.
At its heart this is a love story, albeit a love story filled with unrequited love, secret love, and love that succeeds unbeknownst to some of its participants. And it is a story of love on many levels — romantic love, familial love, and the love of dear and trusted friends. As Max moves through his life in his strange state, he tries to abide by the one rule his mother gave him: Be what they think you are. A difficult task when his outward appearance and true self are at odds throughout most of his life.
As a young man in the body of an old man he befriends another boy named Hughie, who becomes his lifelong friend. And he falls madly in love with a downstairs tenant, Alice — a young woman for whom he could not express his love because of his appearance. The book follows Max in his quest to find happiness with time working for/against him the way it was, and each of these characters play a part in his quest.
And throughout the telling of this tale, Greer’s gift for prose is absolutely masterful — a gift that is praised on the book jacket by no less than Michael Chabon and Michael Cunningham. The way Greer can describe a scene in just the right amount of perfect words is pure magic:
I saw how the moon had dropped into her cup of coffee. It struggled there like a moth. Then I saw her lean forward, her mouth in silent kiss, and as she blew on the furrowed surface to cool it, I saw the moon explode.
I urge everyone to read this book. I still refuse to give any further details on the story itself for fear of ruining it or mis-setting expectations about what happens. But I stand by my position that this is one of my favorite books of all time.