four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
10-May-June-2004
user_rating: 
0

A-ConfessionsTivoli"We each have an awful bargain in our lives," writes Greer. But some bargains are worse than others, especially when they foil true love. Max Tivoli, born in San Francisco in 1871, resembles a wizened old gnome at birth. As he progresses mentally, he ages backwards. Unfortunately, his strange condition stymies his love for Alice Levy, whom he meets when they're both teenagers but he looks 40. "We are each the love of someone's life," says Max, but at only one point does his physical and emotional age match hers. And when it does, he must conceal his march backward through time or forever lose his great love.

Farrar Straus & Giroux. 288 pages. $23.

New Yorker 4.5 of 5 Stars
"...resplendently poetic and loftily sorrowing. ... A great love for a vanished San Francisco, the pre-earthquake 'old San Francisco of gilt-edged gas lamps and velvet walls,' breathes through these pages, whose sepia background of luxury and brutality almost swallows the central characters and their rather schematically star-crossed affections." John Updike

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"He is an agile, inventive storyteller who intelligently examines deep and unsettled feelings about so-called monsters: do they deserve happiness? And aren't we all in some way monsters in matters of the heart?" Connie Ogle

SF Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Like Dorian GrayÑanother literary character at odds with the easy flow of daily timeÑMax makes a credible stand-in for anybody who's ever felt himself impatiently young, or suddenly old. ... A fable of surpassing gravity and beauty, The Confessions of Max Tivoli returns Andrew Sean Greer to the central concerns of his first novel: how time ravages love, and how love takes its revenge." David Kipen

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"By virtue of his ruthless uprooting of his identity and past in his continuous epic pursuit of Alice, [Max] does bitter violence to those who care completely for the person he actually is. That, too, is the most commonplace and heartbreaking of human fates, and it's Greer's singular achievement that he brings it so vividly to life in such a darkly improbable, gracefully written novel." Chris Lehmann

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The consistency and intensity of this passionÑMax's never-flagging love for Alice through all of his (and her) permutationsÑserve as the anchor for the story, keeping its sometimes baroque flourishes in check. ... With the character of Max, Greer has achieved a rare balance, creating a figure who is earnest but not humorless, love-smitten without being cloying or tiresome." Gary Krist

Critical Summary

Lolita, notes The New Yorker, seems downright merry in comparison to Max Tivoli. Timeless, problematic figures, including Humbert Humbert, Dorian Gray, Fitzgerald's Benjamin Button, cast long literary shadows on this magical novel. Although the plot is gimmicky (time literally cleaves apart Max's unrequited love for Alice), it works on many levels. Greer draws exquisite, if sometimes fetishized, set pieces of turn-of-the-last-century San Francisco: its sumptuous gardens, women's outrageous fashions, newspapers "still warm from the butler's iron." But the novel's true beauty lies in its play with time, its melancholy look at life's strange journey, and its pensive message: we'll settle for anything that resembles love.