Author: Andrew Sean Greer
Published: Picador (2005)
Genre: Romance; Speculative Fiction
When I first heard about this book, it was hyped as "the story Benjamin Button should have been." I have neither read nor watched The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, so I'm not qualified to say if that's true. I can say, after having read this book, that it is certainly one of the most absorbing love stories I've ever read.
Greer's novel is presented as a series of journal entries written by Max Tivoli in a pilfered notebook. Max is an old man and feels he must confess his strange and tumultuous life. For readers, things become immediately strange as Max reveals that he appears to be a boy of about twelve years of age as he writes his words. Thought strange by all who were around for his birth think him strange or tragic, including his parents, because he was born an old man in appearance and has aged backwards from that day onward.
Growing up, he has but one true friend, an affable boy named Hughie who shows no aversion or morbid curiosity to Max's condition. As for love, that's part of Max's confessions, as his first love becomes essentially his only love. He meets a girl named Alice and is taken with her on sight, but to her he appears to be a man in his sixties. As a rule handed down by his mother, Max is forced to live his life by how people regard his appearance. If he looks like an old man, he must act like an old man. So, his love for Alice goes unrequited until a fateful night when she comes to him distraught. A brief indiscretion draws the ire of Alice's mother, on more than one level that's explained in the book, and Max loses Alice from his life.
Things turn around for him by chance when after many years, and looking all the younger, he meets Alice again. But she obviously doesn't recognize him, so he assumes a new identity to try and win her affection again.
I really don't do this novel justice by explaining it here, and I've only really touched upon a smattering of what's in its pages. For such a brief novel of less than three hundred pages, the lifelong story of Max Tivoli is rich and ingenuous. By the time I finished it, I felt like I'd walked through a small epic. There's a little bit of pathos, some humor, and a couple of surprises. Some of the surprises are telegraphed, but I didn't find the lack of being awestruck diminished the story. I was more than happy to go along for the ride.
I would say this is a good choice for any fan of romance stories, or coming-of-age tales, or speculative works involving time and aging. I found it to be a rewarding reading experience, and I'll have to make it a point to seek out more of Greer's work in the years ahead.