Summary and book reviews of The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer

The Confessions of Max Tivoli

By Andrew Sean Greer

The Confessions of Max Tivoli
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  • Hardcover: Feb 2004,
    288 pages.
    Paperback: Feb 2005,
    288 pages.

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Book Summary

An 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.

Chapter 1
APRIL 25, 1930

We are each the love of someone's life.


I wanted to put that down in case I am discovered and unable to complete these pages, in case you become so disturbed by the facts of my confession that you throw it into the fire before I get to tell you of great love and murder. I would not blame you. So many things stand in the way of anyone ever hearing my story. There is a dead body to explain. A woman three times loved. A friend betrayed. And a boy long sought for. So I will get to the end first and tell you we are each the love of someone's life.

I sit here on a lovely April day. It keeps changing all around me; the sun alternates between throwing deep shadows behind the children and trees and then sweeping them back up again the moment a cloud crosses the sky. The grass fills with gold, then falls to nothing. The whole school yard is being inked with sun and blotted, glowing and reaching a point of great beauty, and I am breathless to be in ...

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Introduction

An utterly original love story, The Confessions of Max Tivoli incorporates an intriguing plot twist that is by turns fascinating and horrific. The beguiling protagonist, Max Tivoli, is born with the appearance of a man of seventy. As his body grows younger, Max ages intellectually and emotionally -- granting him a painful and alienating existence that allows him one pleasure (or curse): to fall in love with the same woman, Alice Levy, over and over again. But she is not the only recurring figure in his world. His childhood friend, Hughie Dempsey, appears in Max's life at its most intense turning points. Hughie always knows Max's true age and identity, though it takes years before Max realizes that his best friend is...
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Reviews

Media Reviews
Booklist - Paula Luedtke

Starred Review. Max's narrative, that of a man living in reverse and, perforce, rather alongside of his time than in it, becomes a deeply poignant and mature commentary on life that strums the heartstrings again and again. It's positively captivating.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Greer 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.

Library Journal - Marc Kloszewski

There's a good deal of pathos to be wrung from this story of hopelessly elusive love, but Greer never pushes the natural sentiment of the story over the edge into treacle. He thus transforms an idea that could very easily have been a mere novelty into something surprisingly and genuinely affecting. Highly recommended.

Kirkus Reviews

...the delights are many, among them gossamer prose, vivid characterization, and historic snapshots of a fabulous American city. Old-fashioned narrative fun in a literary hall of mirrors.

The Washington Post - Chris Lehmann

Greer's tale succeeds not by cataloguing the plentiful oddities of Max's condition (which it would be all too easy to imagine had the book been composed by a lesser writer, with an eye to a Forrest Gump-style screenplay treatment). Instead, Greer shapes Max's story into much the same outline of a conventionally forward-moving life -- experience and enthusiasms overlapping in fits and starts, with precious little regard for orderly progress or any maturity beyond the ordinary sadness of the world. Indeed, Max, endlessly sympathetic, observant and articulate though he is, does not emerge by any means as a blameless hero in his life story. By virtue of his ruthless uprooting of his identity and past in his continuous epic pursuit of Alice, he does bitter violence to those who care completely for the person he actually is.

The New York Times - Gary Krist

The course of true love, after all, doesn't run smooth -- even for those of us whose biological clocks move forward. So Max turns out to be not so strange a beast after all. He's doomed to improvise his way through life, just like the rest of us, dodging heartbreak and disappointment at every step, forever baffled by the absurd, hopeless ordeal of loving another human being.

The New Yorker - John Updike

The Confessions of Max Tivoli is enchanting, in the perfumed, dandified style of disenchantment brought to grandeur by Proust and Nabokov . . . Like Proust, Greer presents life as essentially a solitude, an ever-renewed exile from the present, a shifting set of gorgeous mirages that nothing but descriptive genius can hold fast.

Reader Reviews
Melissa

Young at heart
Often we wish we had the wisdom of our years when we are young, but would we really? While I felt profound sadness for the character while I was reading this, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and the thoughts and memories it provoked in me.

13 year old

I love philosophical novels. This just happens to remind me a bit of myself. Fantastic novel, but not for the untrained mind. Each word is like a message within itself, a story both relative and perspective. This is by far my favorite book, and one ...   Read More

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