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

Can words alone define a relationship? Maybe not, but author David Levithan pushes the boundaries of the language of love in his new book, The Lover's Dictionary. From A to Z, Levithan (who by day serves as an editor at Scholastic and has written several best-selling young adult novels, including Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) defines the good, bad and ugly moments of a relationship — and explains that the book began as part of a Valentine's Day tradition.

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

"I looked at it and I thought, oh, this could be interesting" he says. "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 were a dictionary?"

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, but it doesn't take long to realize that the two lovers Levithan describes also have some major problems.

"I didn't know what those problems necessarily were until I started writing," Levithan says. "They came up pretty quickly. There's a drinking problem, there's 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."

There are a lot of people on Valentine's Day who don't really want the construction-paper heart version of love.

One moment, this couple is falling in love, settling in and moving in together — and the next, they are hurt, angry and 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.

"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," he says. "When you think about a relationship, you think about a good thing and then a bad thing. You have something that really annoys you, but then you remember a really sweet and tender moment, and that's the complicated nature, I think, of all relationships."

Some of the definitions in the book 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, and is still happening, between these two people.

Levithan, however, says he never lost his own faith in the power of language as he wrote the book. Words may fail at times, but without them, he says, love would falter.

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

The Lover's Dictionary, Levithan says, is not so much a love story as it is a story about love, in all its messy complicated reality.

"It is funny to see it on Valentine's Day tables," he says. "It almost feels subversive that way, but at the same time I think the reaction I have gotten so far is a real love for the book because it does reflect what people go through accurately. 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 the lover, boyfriend, husband, girlfriend, wife or whomever. They actually want to share something real with them."

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Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.

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