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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)
The New York Times
Max may be a monster, but he is a profoundly human one, a creature whose unusual disorder, far from making him a freak to be wondered at, simply magnifies his normal and recognizable emotions, sharpening their poignancy. 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 Washington Post
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. Chris Lehmann
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.
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.
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.
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.