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Book Report: The Confessions of Max Tivoli

I was given The Confessions of Max Tivoli by my Best Reader, who was under the impression that it was one of those specfic-marketed-as-mainstream books like The Time-Traveler’s Wife which I liked so much. It turns out not to be. It does have something in common with that book, a romance between a caddish man and an clever and interesting woman, where the man is unstuck in time in a particular way that dooms the romance. In the Wife, the man is actually unstuck in time. In Tivoli, the fellow ages backward. Just by appearances, actually; at the age of ten he looks like a little old man, then his appearance sheds years until at sixty-five or so he looks like a ten-year old. His memory works the normal way, and the biological changes don’t appear to have much affect on his character.

Anyway, I was disappointed by the lack of any actual speculative element in the book, and I was also disappointed a bit because it’s set in San Francisco, a city much like Heaven, in the period from 1880 or so until 1930 or so, a period that is absolutely fascinating, and it doesn’t really do much with those settings. I mean, the settings are there, and they provide some color to the book, but mostly the book is a meditation about love and age and beauty and so on. The author, Andrew Sean Greer is not very interested in world events. When Max Tivoli goes to Europe to fight in the Great War, a man in his forties among boys in their teens, and Mr. Greer mentions it only in passing. The Great Earthquake of 1906 similarly happens just off-screen. Max Tivoli does not engage in any of the intellectual, artistic or literary movements of the time. He just moons over the lady.

That’s too harsh. Particularly because mooning over the lady is poignant, affecting, even occasionally uplifting (although mostly not). With all the mooning over the lady, there’s a lot about the nature of love, and desire, and with the whole living-backwards business, there’s a lot about the nature of beauty. And as Max ages, his beloved sees him first as a father-figure, then as a lover, than as a child to be mothered (she doesn’t know it’s him each time, of course). It looks at her love, and the way he receives it or can’t receive it, in those terms, and that’s interesting as well. Still. If it’s unfair to criticize a book for not being the book I wanted, it’s unfair for the book not to be the book I wanted, isn’t it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.