The Confessions of Max Tivoli, by Andrew Sean Greer
Publisher: Farrar, Strauss and Girox
Publication Date: February 2004
Format: Hardcover, 288 pages
First Sentence: “We are each the love of someone’s life.” -The Confessions of Max Tivoli
“I just wanted the main character to die so that the book would be over.” – a fellow book club member
So, I didn’t feel quite that strongly about Max, but I did return it to the library as soon as I was finished, and I did thank the book gods that I hadn’t bought it. I was so anxious to be done with this book that I forgot to keep it around long enough for reviewing purposes, so I have no quotes or passages to back up anything I say. You’ll just have to take my word for it.
I was so ready to love this book. It had a super interesting premise and it was well-written. A male child is born to a couple and has the face and body of an old man. Now, I understand that certain books require a suspension of disbelief, and I’m okay with that as long as authors follow their own rules. Max Tivoli is born infant sized. There is no description of his mother being torn apart while trying to, literally, birth a man-child, yet later on in the book we are lead to believe that Max appears as an adult (when he is a child) and will shrink in height and physically grow younger until he turns into an infant- which seems to contradict him being born an infant. He starts off as a child appearing to be about 70 years old.
We are told that from the very beginning that Max’s mother has advised him to act the age that he appears to be as opposed to the age his is, but I don’t feel that we ever got any insight as how he goes about doing that or how such deception makes him feel. There are so many interesting places that this book should have lead. How does it feel to grow up with the face of an old man? How does it feel as a child to be forced to interact with people older than you? How does it feel to be physically old when you should be want to run around and play? How does it affect your interactions with your family and people who know your family; people in general? There were so many interesting questions that I would have liked to have just a glimmer of in the narration. Nope. The character is totally isolated and doesn’t make friends or try to interact with anyone besides Hughie, Alice and Madame Dupont – a brothel owner who used to be a maid in his house.
I think Greer was trying to build this great love story where we watch Max get his shot at love three times over a lifetime, as he appears to his love, Alice, as three different versions of himself. The main problem with this is the character of Max Tivoli. The novel collapses under the weight of a completely self centered and uninteresting narrator. It’s never clear why he loves Alice so much, and so his great love always seems like a juvenile crush that he hasn’t had the opportunity to mature into the depths of love that man might feel. Max is also too self-centered to give any of the other characters more than cursory consideration so we don’t get to know or understand them. I found the character of Hughie to be intriguing from the little I could glean from Max’s spare treatment of him, and he appears to be tormented by a secret, but Max doesn’t ever think to ask his best friend what is bothering him, and by the time Hughie’s secret is revealed it’s anti-climactic and to me, implausible.
Greer is a talented writer. He knows his way around a sentence and his descriptive abilities are very good, but the character of Max failed to move me, which is the kiss of death for any character and also kills the book when that character is the one telling the story. I was bored. This would have been helped had the narrative more fully addressed the realities and limitations/benefits of Max’s unique existence, but as a character he always fails to engage. He even meets someone he suspects is like him, and he doesn’t even talk to the person! Greer is a good writer, so I would be curious to read something else of his, but knowing what I know about Max Tivoli I would be quicker to jump ship if his next main character didn’t engage me rather quickly.