MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
If words alone can't define a relationship, they can at least provide a starting point. That's what David Levithan gives us with a new book called "The Lover's Dictionary." From A to Z, Levithan defines the good, bad and ugly moments that come with love.
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: I didn't know what those problems necessarily were until I started writing. And they came up pretty quickly. I mean, there's a drinking problem. There is an infidelity issue. And those actually all started to rear their head in A, and that became the crux of the conflict throughout the book.
(Reading) Kerfuffle, noun. From now on, you are only allowed one drink at any of my office parties. One. Preferably a beer.
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: It is funny to see it on Valentine's Day tables. It almost feels subversive that way, But at the same time, I think the reaction I've gotten so far has been a real love for the book because it does reflect what people go through accurately, and that there are a lot of people on Valentine's Day who don't really want the construction paper- heart version of love to share with their lover, their boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, whomever. They actually want to share something real with them.
Levithan, who is an editor as well as a writer, spends his life with words. They had saved me more than they have gotten me into trouble, he says. I could never save a relationship with a physics problem.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.