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
From Publishers Weekly
With a premise straight out of science fiction (or F. Scott Fitzgerald), Greer's second novel plumbs the agonies of misdirected love and the pleasures of nostalgia with gratifying richness. Max Tivoli has aged backwards: born in San Francisco in 1871 looking like a 70-year-old man, he's now nearly 60 and looks 11. Other than this "deformity," the defining feature of Max's life is his epic love for Alice Levy, whom he meets when they are both teens (though he looks 53). Max's middle-aged gentility endears him to Alice's mother and, like an innocent Humbert Humbert, he allows Mrs. Levy to seduce him so that he might be near his love. When he steals a kiss from Alice, the Levys flee. But heartbroken Max gets another chance: when he encounters Alice years later, she does not recognize him, and he lies shamelessly and repeatedly to be near her again. Max's parents, whose marriage is itself another story of Old San Francisco, have advised him to "be what they think you are," and he usually is. But his lifelong friend Hughie Dempsey knows Max's secret, and is intimately connected to the story that unfolds, via Max's written "confessions," in small, explosive revelations. "We are each the love of someone's life," Max begins; it is the implications of that statement, rather than the details of a backward existence, that the novel illuminates. Greer (The Path of Minor Planets) writes marvelously nuanced prose; with its turn-of-the-century lilt and poetic flashes, it is the perfect medium for this weird, mesmerizing and heartbreaking tale.
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