Defining Joy And Heartbreak in A 'Lover's Dictionary' In The Lover's Dictionary, young adult author David Levithan tackles the grownup material of love and squalor, piece by piece, in a dictionary format. Over the course of the novel, the small details about two lovers combine to create a heartbreaking (and often uplifting) whole.
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Defining Joy And Heartbreak in A 'Lover's Dictionary'

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Defining Joy And Heartbreak in A 'Lover's Dictionary'

Defining Joy And Heartbreak in A 'Lover's Dictionary'

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And as NPR's Lynn Neary reports, the book began as part of a Valentine's Day tradition.

LYNN NEARY: Ever since he was a teenager, David Levithan has been writing a Valentine's Day story for a group of family and friends. A few years ago, with the deadline looming, Levithan was out of ideas. Then he noticed a book that was sitting on his desk, called "Words You Need to Know."

NORRIS: I looked at it and I thought oh, this could be interesting. Could I tell the story of a relationship by just randomly picking words in alphabetical order from this book, and then writing entries as if it were a dictionary?

NEARY: Levithan says the story and the characters revealed themselves entirely through the words he picked as he turned the pages of the book - and he chose them all in alphabetical order. Like all love stories, this one has its romantic moments.

NORRIS: (Reading) Ethereal, adjective. You leaned your head into mine and I leaned my head into yours. Dancing cheek to cheek. Revolving slowly, eyes closed, heartbeat measure, nature's hum. It lasted the length of an old song, and then we stopped, kissed, and my heart stayed there, just like that.

NEARY: But it doesn't take long to realize that these two lovers also have some problems.

NORRIS: Breach, noun. I didn't want to know who he was or what you did or that it didn't mean anything.

NORRIS: You're getting too emotional.

NEARY: One moment, this couple is falling in love, settling in, moving in together. The next, they're hurt, angry, mistrustful of each other. Their story tumbles out in a torrent of words; nothing about it unfolds in a linear way. Levithan says that was quite deliberate.

NORRIS: I did want to just keep shifting the recollections, and shifting the pieces of the relationship that the narrator is writing down, because I feel that's how remembering a relationship works. When you think about a relationship, you think about a good thing, then a bad thing comes up. And you have something that really annoys you, but then you remember a really sweet and tender moment. And that's sort of the complicated nature, I think, of all relationships.

NEARY: Some of the definitions are as short as one word. Celibacy is defined in two letters: N/A. Other words evoke little stories that take the reader deeper into the relationship. At one point, the narrator seems to lose faith in words, to doubt whether they really can convey the truth of what has happened, is still happening, between these two people.

NORRIS: (Reading) Ineffable, adjective. These words will ultimately end up being the barest of reflections, devoid of the sensations words cannot convey. Trying to write about love is ultimately like trying to have a dictionary represent life. No matter how many words there are, there will never be enough.

NEARY: But Levithan says he has never lost his own faith in the power of language. Words may fail at times but without them, he says, love would falter.

NORRIS: This is glimpse of a relationship; it cannot be the entirety of a relationship between pages. You just can't do that. I think the question is whether the narrator is actually correct here, saying no matter how many words there are, there will never be enough. There will never be enough to represent life. But certainly, there can be enough to actually navigate life and get through life, and to find happiness and love.

NEARY: This book, says Levithan, is not so much a love story as it is a story about love in all its messy, complicated reality.

NORRIS: Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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