A n extraordinarily haunting love story told in the voice of a man who appears to age backwards
We are each the love of someone’s life.
So begins The Confessions of Max Tivoli, a heartbreaking love story with a narrator like no other. At his birth, Max’s father declares him a “nisse,” a creature of Danish myth, as his baby son has the external physical appearance of an old, dying creature. Max grows older like any child, but his physical age appears to go backward–on the outside a very old man, but inside still a fearful child.
The story is told in three acts. First, young Max falls in love with a neighborhood girl, Alice, who ages as normally as any of us. Max, of course, does not; as a young man, he has an older man’s body. But his curse is also his blessing: as he gets older, his body grows younger, so each successive time he finds his Alice, she does not recognize him. She takes him for a stranger, and Max is given another chance at love.
Set against the historical backdrop of San Francisco at the turn of the twentieth century, Max’s life and confessions question the very nature of time, of appearance and reality, and of love itself. A beautiful and daring feat of the imagination, The Confessions of Max Tivoli reveals the world through the eyes of a “monster,” a being who confounds the very certainties by which we live and in doing so embodies in extremis what it means to be human.
Out of the womb in 1871, Max Tivoli looked to all the world like a tiny 70-year-old man. But inside the aged body was an infant. Victim of a rare disease, Max grows physically younger as his mind matures. In Andrew Sean Greer’s finely crafted novel, The Confessions of Max Tivoli, Max narrates his life story from the vantage point of his late fifties, though his body is that of a 12-year-old boy. He has known since a young age that he is destined to die at 70, and he wears a golden “1941″ as a constant reminder of the year he will finally perish in an infant form. His mother, a Carolina belle concerned over her son’s troubling appearance, curses Max with “The Rule”: “Be what they think you are.” Max fails to keep this Rule only a handful of times in his life, but it is the burden of living by it that wounds him and slowly alienates him from the people he loves.
Over Max’s narration of the preceding decades of his life, he offers outsider’s snapshots of San Francisco and all of America across the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Throughout, Greer uses the literary device of reverse aging to interrogate the evolution of social conventions, the finitude of a human life, and the decay of memory. Max wants love. But his curse destines him to deception. He loses his wife, Alice, changes his name, and remains hidden from his own son to keep his true identity secret. Only his lifelong friend, Hughie, stands by Max and can see the person inside the anachronistic body. Like the best science fiction and myth, the novel uses its central conceit to reveal human prejudice and explode all assumptions of normalcy to profound effect.
Love is a destructive force in The Confessions of Max Tivoli. But Greer recognizes that in the failure of love is also hope. He artfully captures Max’s fragile world with a delicacy that never crosses into sentimentality but also avoids the monumental scale of tragedy. As Max says near the end of the novel, “It is a brave and stupid thing, a beautiful thing to waste ones life for love.” A journey with Max, while brave and beautiful, is hardly a waste. –Patrick O’Kelley
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