The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer
"We are each the love of someone's life." So begins this love story. What is at first an opening line will be echoed throughout the story, will be its theme, and will ultimately drive its characters until their ends. Written by Andrew Sean Greer, The Confessions of Max Tivoli tells the life of a man born backwards, exiting the womb with the body of a seventy year old man and the mind of a baby, growing both old and young at the same time. His life is hopelessly intertwined with those of his two friends, Alice and Hughie, in a love triangle that exists only because its participants remain nearly oblivious of their roles as objects of unattainable affection.
With nothing known about his medical condition and no name for what he is, Max can only look to the few historical instances of cases similar to his -- a pair of twins born in France as well as the son of a Viennese merchant. These bits of "research" lend a credibility to the story, making this fictional memoir seem all the more based on a factual account. Greer writes this story as if it were nonfiction -- the actual diary of a man who wishes only to have his unique story known. "I burst into the world," he writes, "as if from the other end of life, and the days since then have been ones of physical reversion, of erasing the wrinkles in my hair, bringing younger muscle to my arms and dew to my skin, growing tall and then shrinking into the hairless, harmless boy who scrawls this pale confession." These are Max's experiences, regrets, and lost hopes, once found in a dusty, old attic -- the efforts of an old man caught in a young boy's body, committing his life to literature.
Having been born backwards, Max possesses a most extreme bit of knowledge -- that of the date of his death, the year of which he wears carved on a chain around his neck. It would be obvious for this point to be the center of the story, telling how this knowledge affects this man's life, but Greer never fully focuses on it as being particularly pivotal. The story is never one of Max fearing his death, as it noticeably draws nearer. Instead, Greer acknowledges that everyone has a general idea of the their life span and know that it may be cut short at any moment, and he writes Max as no different, allowing him, instead, to more fully live the life he has been given. As he ages younger, Max is able to fashion new lives for himself, recreating his past as he seemingly moves through it. What could have easily been a sad tale of one man's constant preparation for his death, Greer made a celebration of this character's life and his attempts to interlace it with that of his love.
This is, after all, a story of grand love, the sort of whose piercing wound never fully heals. At the center of this is Alice Levy, the daughter of a tenant who comes into Max's life when she is fourteen and he is seventeen, though she believes him to be much older. At first Max is simply "Mr. Tivoli," the landlady's old brother-in-law and the man who stops by to help Alice and her widowed mother with errands. Alice soon builds her trust in him and finds herself falling in love with Hughie, Max's one chronologically-correct young friend. When Max later engages in a seemingly appropriate romance, that trust is broken and Alice makes her first exit from his life. From then on Max is determined to find Alice and win her back, and though he is successful, never again is he known to her as Max, his true self.
Greer's writing is effortlessly layered, as he easily inserts his themes and morals into single lines of prose. Max is early on, and continually, encouraged by his mother to "be what they think you are." It is a literal command for this person who is so obviously different from his peers, but the idea is no different from that to which the rest of us are expected to adhere. Though we may try to fit in and do what is requested of us, it is ultimately our individuality, as it is with Max's undeniable difference, that sets us apart from everyone else. These bits of profundity aren't preachy, and it's difficult to determine if Greer is even aware that he's done it, but that's what makes the writing so good - its subtlety. Little details litter the story's scenes, seemingly unnecessary but adding much in imagery. When describing one of the first evenings Max spends with Alice and her mother, Greer writes, "...when I began to take my place as Mrs. Levy instructed, and looked straight at my befurred and itching Alice, I was closer to her than I'd ever been. The wind blew and a hair floated out from her hat, stretched into the air, and landed on my lower lip, sticking there like a fishing line. I felt the hook bleeding into my mouth." The scenes are separated in the most precise places, occurring even midway into a conversation, so that the pauses are heard and the hesitation of the character's words is felt. Greer's written words would need little translation were they to be put on screen.
To tell more of the story would be too reveal too much, and though there the plot line isn't quite intricate with twists and surprises at every turn, it is a pleasure to unravel the events of Max's life through Greer's words. The story is one of choosing to be young or old, to be others' perceptions or to be oneself, and the possibility of never-ending love in whatever form it may take. "Despite all their fears, we ask very little of the ones who never loved us. We do not ask for sympathy or pain or compassion. We simply want to know why," says Max. The question is one that consumes the lives of these three friends, driving their actions and bringing them to their individual ends. This question is what propels the entire story, for Max's life is never so much about the oddity of his condition or the foreknowledge of a timely death, but the pursuit of the love of his life.
The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux