Andrew Sean Greer: The Confessions of Max Tivoli

Review of the novel The Confessions of Max Tivoli, by Andrew Sean Greer.

I knew by page three that I wasn’t going to like this book.

The tip-off was that the prose was just too purple for my tastes: It was difficult to slog through the raw verbiage, and there were too many digressions and embellishments. The story seemed too enamored of its narrative voice, and not enamored enough with, well, its story.

The story is a simple conceit: Max Tivoli was born in 1870 in San Francisco, but as an infant his body was 72 years old. Although born the size of an infant, he grew quickly, and as a teenager looked like a man of about 60, his body aging backwards as his mind aged forward. At age 6 he meets his lifelong friend, Hughie, and at age 17 he meets the love of his life, Alice. But while Hughie accepts Max for who he is, Alice cannot: He doesn’t tell her. Instead he hides his condition from almost everyone (save for Hughie and a select few who figure it out themselves), and attempts to woo Alice at three different points in their lives.

The story is narrated by Max when he’s 60 years old, in 1930, and appears to be a 12-year-old boy. He’s living with another boy, Sammy, and Sammy’s mother, and reminisces in detail. But, really, not enough detail: The book is really only about Max and his obsession with Alice, even though their only common feature is that they were both born to relatively high-class families which were brought low. But Max seems to have no interests, no hobbies, not really any ambitions beyond being with Alice.

The book’s conceit, Max aging backwards, seems almost superfluous: Other than the period in 1930, his earlier exploits could have been the adventures of any normal man dealing badly with unrequited love. For all his eloquence of tongue, Max is not introspective, he provides little true insight into such an unusual life as his condition must create. He’s a shallow thinker, of the worst sort, really: He spends great amounts of time and energy describing tedium.

And as for that purple prose: It seems especially inappropriate for its narrator, who’s not very well educated. It makes him seem like a poseur. And ultimately Max is just not a likeable figure, and he spends so much time in self-pity that it’s difficult to actually pity him. Alice is no better, although she’s slightly better rounded; but she’s no less self-absorbed and disagreeable.

Author Greer does have a couple of clever turns of plot, mainly when Max learns some hard truths about each Hughie and Alice near the end. But rather than tragic, it all just feels rather tiresome. It seems like Max Tivoli gets wrong everything The Time Traveler’s Wife gets right: It’s not romantic, its characters are hard to root for, Max’s condition isn’t especially interesting, and the tragedy of the story left me simply shrugging. I went back and re-read passages of Time Traveler several times after finishing it; I had no such compulsion for Max Tivoli.

Maybe Greer was going for something that simply eludes me. But there just wasn’t much here for me to enjoy, and consequently, not much for me to learn from. It was eloquent wordsmithing in the service of a slight story. A pity.

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