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The Confessions of Max Tivoli (Today Show Book Club #22) Paperback – February 1, 2004

4.1 out of 5 stars 157 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (February 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374128715
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374128715
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 1.1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (157 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,192,992 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Ashley Megan VINE VOICE on May 16, 2005
Format: Paperback
Max Tivoli's father proudly declares him a "gnome" at his birth, and throughout the course of his backwards life Max will constantly question his "monstrous" blood. Indeed, his unique disability forces upon him choice after choice in which he must wound others if he is to experience any happiness of his own. It both ruins his relationship with Alice, his obsession and the love of his life, and offers him the bittersweet opportunity for another chance with her when she no longer recognizes the man who youthens, rather than ages. Max's relationships with Alice divide the book into thirds: first, he is her elderly-seeming landlord, then for a few short years he is her contemporary, and finally, as the book is told in flashback, Max returns to his old love in the guise of a child.

There's something depressing about a book in which you simply cannot bring yourself to love any of the main characters. With a single exception, the characters in "Max Tivoli" are selfish and self-centered, occasionally cruel and often insensitive, and delving into pathetic every time they reach for sympathy.

The exception is Hughie, who befriends Max when he is a child of six and looks like an old man, and stays with him his entire life until he is an old man in the body of a child. Hughie is almost the only person outside Max's family to know the truth, and his steadfast loyalty and unquestioning friendship were more heartwarming than anything else in this book. Forget the love story between Max and Alice - the truest love here is between Max and Hughie.

The first part of the book is richly steeped in the atmosphere of late nineteenth century San Francisco.
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Format: Paperback
Imagine being born an old man and growing physically younger. Imagine grappling with physical and chronological ages that are at odds with each other for all but a brief period in your middle age. Imagine falling in love and stopping at nothing to be near the one you love. Max Tivoli has had such a life. He is a protagonist like no other, and now he writes his confessions. No, not his memoirs... his confessions.
Max bares his soul, revealing the paradoxes, the ironies, and the cyclical patterns in his unique and tumultuous life. He documents his struggles against the currents of time, where he has had to keep reinventing himself as time moved inexorably forward for others. He laments the deceit and rejection he has had to practice to follow his mothers advice to "be what they think you are." He describes how his best friend, in stages, plays the role of his son, his brother, and his father. He memorializes a love that transcends drastically changing age differences.

Taking place in San Francisco around the turn of the twentieth century, when gaslights and carriages make way for electric lights and automobiles, the action centers on the three time periods in Max's life when his path crosses that of his love, Alice. In each of the three sections he reluctantly reveals, bit by bit, the surprising details that comprise the core of his life. His need for acceptance and love is portrayed in an entirely new and fresh way. The story evinces emotions that are powerfully heartrending. The writing is lyrical and full of imagery. This incredible novel will take your breath away, and I recommend it highly. If you only have the time to read one literary novel this season, make it this one.
Eileen Rieback
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Format: Paperback
About halfway through the book, I found myself thinking that the writing style and some elements of the plot reminded me of another book. When I looked at the other reviews on the jacket, I realized that it was Nabakov's Lolita.
The same hopeless thrill of a doomed love runs through this book. Max Tivoli knows from the start of his life as an old man that his is a curse he cannot overcome - much as he might try. His relationships with Alice, first as a father figure who is unable to control his desire for her young girl self, then as a jealous husband who rapes his wife on the eve of her desertion of him, and last as her adopted son who yearns to kiss her and sleep with her, fill one with pity and despair.
One of the greatest tragedies is that Max, and hence the reader, ends the book still not knowing exactly how Alice feels about the various incarnations of Max she has known. Did she learn to hate him as a girl, care for him as a husband, love him as a son? Obviously his feelings for her are always stronger than hers for him - but what are her feelings? So much of the book is devoted to Alice - but the reader is frustrated along with Max - just grasping at images of Alice instead of the whole person.
The writing is lyrical at times and the premise is very intriguing, but I found myself drifting a bit as I read. As fascinating as Max should be - he took a backseat when his lifelong friend Hughie was in the scene. Max's life is unreal, to be sure, but I found his character a bit unreal as well - and found myself gravitating toward the more sympathetic Hughie.
I enjoyed this book - maybe not as much as I'd hoped - but would recommend it without reservation. I am not sure, however, if it leaves me wanting to rush out and buy more of Greer's works.
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