It’s difficult for any work of fiction to have an original plot these days. No matter how hard an author tries, it seems that whatever they come up with has been done before, and the only thing they can accomplish is to give the subject matter a different spin. Andrew Sean Greer, however, may have succeeded where so many other authors of failed. His novel The Confessions of Max Tivoli may actually revolve around a subject that no one has thought of before.
Max Tivoli is unlike anyone else when he is born in the 1800s. He is born an old man and, as he ages, his body gets younger. By figuring out that he was born the equivalent of the age of seventy, his grandmother deduces the exact year — 1941 — in which Max will die. Max lives a strange life, and his parents continually make up stories to explain to people why they appear to be living with an old man.
When Max is seventeen (but looks fifty-three), he meets Alice, a fourteen-year-old neighbor, and immediately falls in love. Of course Alice has no interest in romance with a man old enough to be her father, but this does not stop Max from yearning for her. Through a series of events, Max loses Alice, only to discover her years later when they are both in their thirties (the only time when Max actually looks his real age). Max’s life revolves around Alice in ways he doesn’t truly understand. The only confidante in his life who knows the whole truth is his childhood friend Hughie, who is also keeping a secret from Max.
The Confessions of Max Tivoli is a strange little book that is full of creativity but does not contain enough characterization. Max never really becomes real to us, and his love for Alice, the backbone of the novel, does not ring true. While he pursues Alice his entire life, we never really understand his love for her and often doubt whether his love is even real. For an odd book like this, we must be able to grab on to something we understand — love — to relate to the characters. Unfortunately, the love story just does not work and, in turn, casts doubt on whether or not the entire premise of the book works.
In addition to this, Confessions is full of little "life lessons" and platitudes that mostly come off as patronizing, though a few of them do ring true. Since most of them are about love and we’re never quite convinced Max understands love, it’s no wonder they do not have the effect the author intended. Maybe if we related more easily to Max, these lessons would have worked better.
Where Confessions succeeds in creativity, it fails in characterization, making it a strange read that holds the interest of the reader but never really makes an impact.