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The Confessions of Max Tivoli

The Confessions of Max Tivoli

3.7 27
by Andrew Sean Greer

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Today Show Book Club Pick

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


Today Show Book Club Pick

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.

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
When Max Tivoli is born in 1871, his parents are shocked to find that his body is that of an elderly man. Such is the beginning of Max's life in reverse: As he grows older, his body grows younger. At the end of his life, he finds himself in the body of an 11-year-old boy, writing his memoirs from the safety of a playground sandbox.

Framing his second novel with this unusual device, Andrew Sean Greer has penned a love story: the story of Max's love for one woman, Alice, and the chances he has to act on that love. When they first meet, Alice is the girl next door, but 17-year-old Max is already trapped in the body of a 55-year-old man, an unacceptable suitor for a young girl. Alice ages normally while Max grows younger until a chance meeting in their mid-30s paves the way for a potentially happy future. But Max cannot halt the backward progression of his body any more than Alice can prevent the decline of her own, and Max is left heartbroken and alone. Greer's wildly inventive premise may strike readers as similar to The Time Traveler's Wife, but his artful narration, and the unsparing honesty of his uniquely resourceful and sympathetic protagonist, carry this novel beyond a simple comparison. (Winter/Spring 2004 Selection)

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. (Feb.) Forecast: Greer's novel is a prime candidate for handselling-as effusive praise for it from booksellers suggests-and blurbs from Michael Chabon and Michael Cunningham will catch browsers' attention. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Max Tivoli has an unusual malady: born with the appearance of an elderly man, he appears progressively younger and younger as he ages. Max's dilemma is illustrated by his relationship with Alice Levy, his first and only love. Clearly, romance isn't an easy proposition; when they first meet, he's more of a grandfatherly figure to her, and complications arise when Alice's mother grows attached to this enigmatic man. Only at the midpoint of Max's life does he approach anything resembling normalcy, with a brief marriage to Alice and the fathering of a child (these are the novel's most touching moments), but that happiness obviously cannot last. Near the end of his life, his desire to be near Alice and their son causes him to masquerade as an abandoned child to receive at least some sort of love from the unaware mother. There's a good deal of pathos to be wrung from this story of hopelessly elusive love, but Greer (The Path of Minor Planets) 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.-Marc Kloszewski, Indiana Free Lib., PA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A man who ages backward in late-19th-century San Francisco recounts his inverted but ultimately rewarding life: a quirky second novel from the author of The Path of Minor Planets (2001). Born to wealthy San Franciscans in 1871, Max Tivoli is pronounced a "Nisse," or little Danish gnome, a time-altered creature who starts out as an old man and gradually grows younger until he attains babyhood and death-calculated by his grandmother at 1941. Yet Max grows only physically younger, while his mind reflects his actual years, prompting his family and himself perpetually to pass him off in public as someone he isn't-like the performing bear at Woodward's Gardens. Max's Danish father abruptly vanishes from the house (he's believed to have been "shanghaied") when Max is 16, forcing him and his pregnant mother to move from tony Nob Hill to their old house in South Park, where Max (presented as his mother's brother-in-law) falls hopelessly in love with the 14-year-old daughter of widow Levy, a tenant downstairs. Yet because of Max's still-elderly appearance, he despairs of winning young Alice's love, and instead allows the widow to seduce him-though when she discovers his secret, she flees with her daughter: they don't reappear until Alice and Max are both, harmoniously, in their 30s. In a most ingenious (and Freudian) manner, Alice becomes truly the mutable love of Max's life, functioning as his first love, then as his wife, and then-shockingly-as his mother in his final preadolescent years. By that time, in 1930, Max knows he has few more lucid days left and begins penning his life story. Artifices indeed proliferate in Greer's nutty scheme for a novel, but if the reader can persevere beyond thefirst few convoluted pages-"So many things stand in the way of anyone ever hearing my story"-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.
From the Publisher

“Enchanting” —John Updike, The New Yorker

“Devastating, heartbreaking...an astonishment.” —Esquire

“****” —People

“Quietly dazzling...keenly affecting.” —The New York Times Book Review

“This year's break-out novel.” —Entertainment Weekly

“A devastating new writer” —Michael Cunningham

“A fable of surpassing gravity and beauty.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“One of the most talented writers around.” —Michael Chabon

“Elegant and graceful.” —Miami Herald

“Brilliantly conceived.” —Los Angeles Times

“A breath-taking love story...a profound meditation on life.” —Salon.com

“A writer of great daring and originality.” —Peter Carey

“It leaves its readers ...both younger and wiser.” —Washington Post

“What's most impressive about Greer's work is the emotional intensity...and the deep beauty of his prose.” —The Atlanta Journal Constitution

“This is the kind of book that makes you laugh out loud, write notes in the margins and shed tears onto its pages.” —Neil LaBute

“Surprisingly and genuinely affecting.” —Library Journal

“Strikingly original and beautifully told.” —Bookpage

“Weird and wonderful...[a] deft new modern master.” —Elle.com

“[It] strums the heartstrings again and again...positively captivating.” —Booklist

“Mesmerizing and heartbreaking.” —Publishers Weekly

“The delights are many....old-fashioned narrative fun in a literary hall of mirrors.” —Kirkus Review

“A mythic, Proustian romance...a brilliant story.” —The Times (London)

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.56(h) x 1.07(d)

Read an Excerpt

Excerpt from The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer. Copyright © 2004 by Andrew Sean Greer. To be published in February, 2004 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.


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 the audience. No one else notices. The little girls sit in a circle, dresses crackling with starch and conspiracy, and the boys are on the baseball field or in the trees, hanging upside down. Above, an airplane astounds me with its roar and school-marm line of chalk. An airplane; it's not the sky I once knew.

And I sit in a sandbox, a man of almost sixty. The chill air has made the sand a bit too tough for the smaller kids to dig; besides, the field's changing sunlight is too tempting, so everyone else is out there charging at shadows, and I'm left to myself.

We begin with apologies:

For the soft notebook pages you hold in your hands, a sad reliquary for my story and apt to 0 rip, but the best I could steal. For stealing, both the notebooks and the beautiful lever-fed pen I'm writing with, which I have admired for so many months on my teacher's desk and simply had to take. For the sand stuck between the pages, something I could not avoid. There are more serious sins, of course, a lost family, a betrayal, and all the lies that have brought me to this sandbox, but I ask you to forgive me one last thing: my childish handwriting.

We all hate what we become. I'm not the only one; I have seen women staring at themselves in restaurant mirrors while their husbands are away, women under their own spell as they see someone they do not recognize. I have seen men back from war, squinting at themselves in shopwindows as they feel their skull beneath their skin. They thought they would shed the worst of youth and gain the best of age, but time drifted over them, sand-burying their old hopes. Mine is a very different story, but it all turns out the same.

One of the reasons I sit here in the sand, hating what I've become, is the boy. Such a long time, such a long search, lying to clerks and parish priests to get the names of children living in the town and suburbs, making up ridiculous aliases, then crying in a motel room and wondering if I would ever find you. You were so well hidden. The way the young prince in fairy tales is hidden from the ogre: in a trunk, in a thorny grove, in a dull place of meager enchantment. Little hidden Sammy. But the ogre always finds the child, doesn't he? For here you are.

If you are reading this, dear Sammy, don't despise me. I am a poor old man; I never meant you any harm. Don't remember me just as a childhood demon, though I have been that. I have lain in your room at night and heard your breathing roughen the air. I have whispered in your ear when you were dreaming. I am what my father always said I was—I am a freak, a monster—and even as I write this (forgive me) I am watching you.

You are the one playing baseball with your friends as the sunlight comes and goes through your golden hair. The sunburned one, clearly the boss, the one the other boys resent but love; it's good to see how much they love you. You are up to bat but hold out your hand because something has annoyed you; an itch, perhaps, as just now your hand scratches wildly at the base of your blond skull, and after this sudden dervish, you shout and return to the game. Boys, you don't mean to be wonders, but you are.

You haven't noticed me. Why would you? To you I am just the friend in the sandbox, scribbling away. Let's try an experiment: I'll wave my hand to you. There, see, you just put down your bat to wave back at me, a smile cocked across your freckled face, arrogant but innocent of everything around you. All the years and trouble it took for me to be here. You know nothing, fear nothing. When you look at me, you see another little boy like you.

A boy, yes, that's me. I have so much to explain, but first you must believe:

Inside this wretched body, I grow old. But outside—in every part of me but my mind and soul—I grow young.

There is no name for what I am. Doctors do not understand me; my very cells wriggle the wrong way in the slides, divide and echo back their ignorance. But I think of myself as having an ancient curse. The one that Hamlet put upon Polonius before he punctured the old man like a balloon:

That, like a crab, I go backwards.

For even now as I write, I look to be a boy of twelve. At nearly sixty, there is sand in my knickers and mud across the brim of my cap. I have a smile like the core of an apple. Yet once I seemed a handsome man of twenty-two with a gun and a gas mask. And before that, a man in his thirties, trying to find his lover in an earthquake. And a hardworking forty, and a terrified fifty, and older and older as we approach my birth.

"Anyone can grow old," my father always said through the bouquet of his cigar smoke. But I burst into the world as if from the other end of life, and the days since then have been ones of physical reversion, of erasing the wrinkles around my eyes, darkening the white and then the gray in my hair, bringing younger muscle to my arms and dew to my skin, growing tall and then shrinking into the hairless, harmless boy who scrawls this pale confession.

A mooncalf, a changeling; a thing so out of joint with the human race that I have stood in the street and hated every man in love, every widow in her long weeds, every child dragged along by a loving dog. Drunk on gin, I have sworn and spat at passing strangers who took me for the opposite of what I was inside—an adult when I was a child, a boy now that I am an old man. I have learned compassion since then, and pity passersby a little, as I, more than anyone, know what they have yet to live through.

Meet the Author

Andrew Sean Greer is the author of the story collection How it Was For Me (Picador) and most recently a novel, The Path of Minor Planets (Picador). He lives in San Francisco, California.

Brief Biography

San Francisco, California
Date of Birth:
November 21, 1970
Place of Birth:
Washington, D.C.
B.A. in English, Brown University, 1992; M.F.A . in Fiction, University of Montana, 1996

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Confessions of Max Tivoli 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 27 reviews.
songcatchers More than 1 year ago
Imagine: when you are born you come into the world looking like a 70 year old man all wrinkles, loose skin and liver-spotted arms. As you age though, your physical appearance grows more youthful. You get your geriatric body and arthritis over with while you are a child and when you are an old man with all your lifetime of experience, you have a youthful body to enjoy. This is the story of Max Tivoli.

The Confessions of Max Tivoli is narrated by the title character Max. It is Max writing his life story down for his son, the love of his life and future doctors to study. Max was born different, old looking, and stumped the doctors of the time (turn of the century) as to what his disease was. The age that Max looked and the age he actually was always seemed to add up to 70. So when he had lived for 50 years, he had the body and looks of a 20 year old man. This is both a blessing and a curse for Max and through reading his life story we find out why.

The Confessions of Max Tivoli is a love story....but a distinctly unique one. The opening line says "We are each the love of someone's life" and this is true for Max in several heart breaking ways. Alice is the love of Max's life and he meets her at three different stages of his life. The first time is when he is 17 (but looks to be in his 50's) and Alice is 14. He instantly is taken with her but she wants nothing to do with the 'old' man who lives upstairs. Their paths collide later on though when Alice is in her 30's and they fall in love and marry. Before Alice leaves him shortly after, he leaves her a gift that is born 9 months later in the form of Sammy. Max finds out about his son Sammy when he's an old man (but looks like a child) and goes on a search to find Sammy and Alice. Alice takes her ex-husband in as an orphan child and adopts him. So Max, once the husband and father, becomes the son and brother. At the three different times that Max knows Alice, she doesn't recognize him. He is three different people to her and it's heartbreaking to know he can't tell her the truth.

The Confessions of Max Tivoli takes place at the turn of the century San Francisco and incorporates real historical events into the story, for instance the infamous San Francisco Earthquake. The characters are unforgettable and so human. This is an exceptional, strange and beautiful yet heartrending story that I can't wait to read again
Guest More than 1 year ago
Upon reading the back of the book, I thought, 'What an interesting idea, I'm sure it will be wonderful'. I was fooled! This book is so boring that it is painful to endure. The lack of dialogue makes the book very bland and tedious. Max Tivoli's life was dull and sad. He made nothing of himself and even his romance was lame. The book would have been more interesting if the author would have allowed that the character take more chances and develop a more riveting plot. It was so tiring to read the same sob story page after page.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I havent read a book this well written in a long time. Max Tivoli gets another opportunity for true love, and on his quest for Alice, the reader sees the best and the worst of human nature. I loved how everything was woven together, and I love even more the fact that this book has made me think about my own life, about the opportunities we have, whether they are taken or missed.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was fortunate enough to be the narrator for the audio version of 'The Confessions of Max Tivoli', thus I am able to write of this book before it's release. In short, '...Max Tivoli' was a thrill to read aloud. Mr. Greer has a wonderful gift for expressive language and his astonishing story seemed to tell itself. I was so taken by this book that I'm planning to reread it...this time quietly...to myself. Thank you, Andrew.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Why does this sound so familiar? Oh yeah, F. Scott Fitzgerald did the same thing with Benjamin Button. So much for an original idea.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is my favorite book. I read it twice, cried both times. It's beautiful, it's tragic, it's different from anything else I've read. Anyone who has known true love and/or unrequited love will most likely be deeply moved. Side note: every guy I know who has read it LOVED it, and every girl i've known who has read it thought it was just OK. 
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JustCassie More than 1 year ago
I read this book long ago and it still remains one of my favorites. The way its written just lets you escape to the world of the characters and easily picture everything going on. Extremely original and touching, I'd take this story over Benjamin Button any time.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book. I liked suspending belief that this could happen. I liked the tie in to historical events. It all felt possible to me while reading the book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'm surprised by some of the negative comments I've seen here on bn.com. This story is a great idea well executed. Max's body is going the wrong way through time, which gives rise to an array of scenes emotional, poignant, & humorous. Going along for the ride requires the reader to suspend some disbelief, but no more so than listening to a political debate!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was disappointed with the book. Countless reviews and bestseller status fooled me into thinking that this story would have been a worthwile read. Yes, the plot was intriguing, but the author didn't do much to hold my attention. With such an extraordinary idea, the writing should not have been so ordinary.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I didn't think I was going to make it through the first 150 pages, but the story came around in the last half and made it a worth while read.If you can get past the overdone metaphors and questions about Alice--you've got it made. In the end I was glad I had stuck with it and really enjoyed it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The concept is lovely, the language is formal but gorgeous. There are some overwrought metaphors throughout, but this flaw is a product of the voice, not the writer. Greer took a risk by weaving his complex plot around the simplest of love stories; the result is heartbreaking. If you are looking for a lovely, engaging, magical read, this is it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
What an amazing, fresh book. I *REALLY* Loved it. I started reading to take a break from cleaning...and then 5 hours later....oh don't you love great books???
Guest More than 1 year ago
At first glance, the idea of the story of a man who grows younger instead of older, seems very intriguing. However, the story you have in your imagination is better than the author dreamed up. The novel is supposed to be a love story to Alice, but the reader isn't given enough Alice to fall in love with; and Max seems just as flat. I felt I was growing substantially older waiting for this book to end!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was disappointed. All of the reviews were really, really positive but the book does suffer from very confusing metaphors and awkward internal conversation. It is more of a diary, with all of a diary's daily, unnoteworthy facts. If you like that kind of novel, good for you. There were some cute phrases and conversations here and there. The fact that Max was growing younger was reiterated WAY too often! Like, every other line. The love story was told like any teenager's first crush- there is really no reason for him to 'love' Alice so much and we never understand it. He just seems awkward, overthought, timid and stalker-ish. Overall, I was thoroughly disappointed. Too much press on this one! Next!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Greer writes with beautiful precision as he weaves Max's confession with twists and turns. Max is an original character and whether you believe he is victim or devil at any given moment, he is memorable. Excellent insights into relationships with parents.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Aftering reading: 'his smile was like the core of an apple', I knew that I was in trouble. Poor metaphors, that do not enhance or define, which only obscure, fill this book. This book was meant to impress but the lack a fluid narrative was sad to read.