Saturday, October 10, 2009

Book Review: The Confessions of Max Tivoli, by Andrew Sean Greer

The Confessions of Max Tivoli, by Andrew Sean Greer

It's been simmering for awhile, but now I confess it is official:

I've got a serious literary crush on Andrew Sean Greer.

Tell me, could you could resist a first line like this one?

We are each the love of someone's life.

Eight little words begin Greer's second novel, grabbing hold of at least one reader's heart (mine) while doing so. It is such a powerfully simple premise, that each one of us is the love of someone's life.

And if we're lucky they are also ours. But life doesn't always quite work out that way.

Max Tivoli does not seem to be very lucky at all. Born in 1871, the fictional Max "burst into the world as if from the other end of life." (pg. 6). His very conception happens at the moment of a very real explosion, the shock of which he theorizes is the reason that he looks like an old man at birth instead of a typical cherubic newborn.

"As the years passed, I changed as startlingly as a normal child, but my condition made it seem as if my body aged in reverse, grew younger, as it were. Born a wizened creature of seemingly great age, I soon became an infant with the thick white hair of a man in his sixties, curls of which my mother cut to place in her hair album. But I was not an old man; I was a child. I aged backwards only in what I seemed. I looked like a creature out of myth, but underneath I was the same as any boy ...." (pg 11-12).
Now, you're probably thinking this sounds very much like The Case of Benjamin Button, so we might as well deal with that elephant in the room right now. I haven't seen the movie, so it's just easier - and very worthwhile - to read Andrew Sean Greer's comments on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. (You can go do that now, if it's bothering you. I'll wait.)

The Confessions of Max Tivoli, published in February 2004, is written in the first person, as a memoir/confessional of Max's life. Through her stoic tears, Max's mother advises him to "be what they think you are," a mantra that guides and haunts him throughout his life.

The symbolism of hats is used through the novel to carry this concept through (there are several references to the hats Max is wearing, for example, or the simple act of hanging up one's hat). It's used literally, as Max indeed does wear several hats. Because of the need to "be what they think he is," he becomes whatever is most fitting to achieve what he needs.

"It takes too much imagination to see the sorrows of people we take for happy. Their real battles take place, like those of the stars, in some realm of light imperceptible to the human eye. It is a feat of the mind to guess another's heart." (pg. 114)
That part of the novel really got to me. There have been so many instances in my own life where I have assumed the persona or identity of what someone thought I was - either by choice or misinformation or because it was simply the easiest path taken.

And as the mother of a child on the autism spectrum, I can understand very well the perspective that a mother could have when faced with a child that is different than others - especially when you're raising that child, as Mrs. Tivoli was, while a single mother in the 1870s. It also broke my heart to realize that Max's mother never got to see him as a little boy, just as a small, old man.

Reading The Confessions of Max Tivoli is like being by Max's side for his entire life, from beginning to end (or, end to beginning). He meets a young boy named Hughie Dempsey who becomes a lifelong friend. Max falls in love with Alice Levy, and because of his appearance of being older, Alice's mother falls in love with Max. In the hands of a less talented writer, this story could derail quickly into some reality show from the 1870s, but Greer does everything magnificently in this story.

And he does it with a passion for cadence and vocabulary. On what seems to be nearly every page, Greer splashes five-dollar words as if he was a mad artist splattering paint on a canvas. I certainly appreciate a big word as much as anybody, but in certain points in the story, it did stike me as slightly excessive and distracting. This is but a minor quibble, however, as I absolutely loved The Confessions of Max Tivoli.

I'm trying not to give too much away here, but suffice it to say that this novel deserves to be read. Andrew Sean Greer deserves to be proud of it, not to hide it away and disown it, as he has felt (and understandably so) compelled to do in the wake of the whole comparisons with Benjamin Button. It's somewhat ironic that this has been one of the aftershocks of the novel's publication and the movie's release; The Confessions of Max Tivoli has become a mirror image of the novel's protagonist itself. One of those cases of art reflecting life, or vice versa.

If I was still rating books, this is a 5 out of 5, to be sure. I loved it (have I said that enough? :) and I am so glad to know that Andrew Sean Greer is working on another novel.

My heart is already waiting in breathless anticipation.


rhapsodyinbooks said...

His comments are interesting although I have to admit to being a bit skeptical about the line "my book was written before I’d ever heard of Fitzgerald...." But in any event, I don't think it is a bad thing to try a different take on a similar idea; like he says, there aren't that many new ideas in the world anyway. Good review!

Trisha said...

That is a fascinating conundrum. On the one hand, he is completely right about foundational ideas being used over and over again; the changes are in the details. On the other, it seems highly unlikely that such similar ideas develop so close together. I do have a strong desire to read the book now - this was a very interesting review.

Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy) said...

It is interesting, isn't it? I was also wondering (and somewhat skeptical) about the similarities in both ideas, and I see both points of view on this. I'm inclined (for as little as it matters, because really, who am I?) to give Greer the benefit of the doubt on this one. He could have taken the opposite route of lawsuits or the cash from the movie mogels to bury his book, but instead is taking - IMHO - the high road, or as high a road as one could take in such a bizarre instance.

It would be sad, I think, to feel like you had to disown something you worked so hard and long on, and to not even be able to have a conversation about it with others. (Note to Mr. Greer: you can talk with me about Max Tivoli and your novels any ol' time. :)

Amy said...

There are no new ideas under the sun! :) Looks interesting...I've never read any books by Andrew Sean Greer.