The Confessions of Max Tivoli A Novel

Andrew Sean Greer




Trade Paperback

288 Pages



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Winner of the Northern California Book Award
A Chicago Tribune Best Book
Winner of the New York Public Library's Young Lions Fiction Award

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 still a fearful child.

The story is told in three acts. First, young Max falls in love with a neighbor girl, Alice, who ages 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 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 if 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 this book embodies in extremis what it means to be human.


Praise for The Confessions of Max Tivoli

"The Confessions of Max Tivoli is enchanting, in the perfumed, dandified style of disenchantment brought to grandeur by Proust and Nabokov . . . Resplendently poetic and loftily sorrowing . . . The huge technical challenge of framing a life lived backward is cunningly, handsomely met . . . [Max's] poignantly awry existence, set out with such a wealth of verbal flourishes and gilded touches, serves as a heightened version of the strangeness, the muted disharmony, of being human."—John Updike, The New Yorker

"A fable of surpassing gravity and beauty, The Confessions of Max Tivoli returns Andrew Sean Greer to the central concerns of his first novel: how time ravages love, and how love takes its revenge . . . By the next time his comet comes around, more readers than ever should be there to meet it . . . [Greer] has an eerie maturity not often found in young novelists. His prose, incantatory but not overheated, idles along with a top-hatted, almost courtly elegance."—David Kipen, San Francisco Chronicle

"The secret to Greer's success in Max Tivoli is his delightfully overwrought voice, his willingness to luxuriate in Victorian conceits of self-pity, love, and confession. For a modern author, it requires balancing on the razor's edge between parody and profundity, and Greer sways precariously between the two in a way that makes it impossible to take your eyes off him . . . The story maintains just the right claustrophobic tone, marked by sparks of profundity in a perfect Victorian voice . . . [A] startling sense of sympathy for Max's bizarre situation is perhaps the novel's greatest accomplishment."—Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor

"[A] cunning new novel."—Celia Wren, Newsday

"Max's flights of rapture [are] never false, and this emotional honesty is what makes the novel memorable."—Gary Krist, The New York Times Book Review

"[An] intensely moving story."—Michael J. Ybarra, Los Angeles Times

"[A] wise and warm novel . . . Lyrical, exquisitely crafted . . . There's something wonderfully clean and old-fashioned in the way Greer's elegant and graceful style meshes perfectly with the period. He is an agile, inventive storyteller who intelligently examines deep and unsettled feelings . . . Greer's language evokes not only the magic of nostalgia but also the emotional depths in which we swim."—Connie Ogle, The Miami Herald

"Greer is one of the most talented writers around, feeling and funny, with a genuinely fine prose style and a sensibility to match."—Michael Chabon, author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

"Confessions is saved from being a melodrama by its exploration of the eternal issues of identity and human relationships in a daring and thoughtful way. It invites the reader to think about what it means to be young, what it means to age, and why our sense of social order is dependent on others being who and what we expect them to be . . . On further reflection, the whole unusual tale is such an intriguing puzzle that it begs to be reread. Now, that's a book worth talking about."—Judith McCue, The Common Review

"Every once in a great while, a truly original voice springs up, seemingly out of nowhere, and tells us a story unlike anything we've ever heard before. Andrew Sean Greer is a devastating new writer, and The Confessions of Max Tivoli marks the beginning of what I suspect will be a significant and lasting career."—Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours

"[An] engaging, wry, and melancholy novel . . . 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. lBy 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. That, too, is the most commonplace and heartbreaking of human fates, and it's Greer's singular achievement that he brings it so vividly to life it in such a darkly improbable, gracefully written novel. The Confessions of Max Tivoli leaves its readers in much the same state as its narrator: bewildered by the sheer unlikely strangeness of life and feeling somehow both younger and wiser on that account."—Chris Lehmann, The Washington Post

"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."—Paula Luedtke, Booklist (starred review)

"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 . . . 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."—Publishers Weekly

"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 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 Library, Pennsylvania, Library Journal

"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 a 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 in 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 . . . The delights are many, among them gossamer prose, vivid characterization, and historic snapshots of a fabulous American city. [This book offers] old-fashioned narrative fun in a literary hall of mirrors."—Kirkus Reviews

Reviews from Goodreads



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Andrew Sean Greer is the bestselling author of five works of fiction, including The Story of a Marriage, which The New York Times has called an "inspired, lyrical novel," and The Confessions of Max Tivoli, which was named a best book of 2004 by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Chicago Tribune. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, and The Paris Review. He is the recipient of the Northern California Book Award, the California Book Award, the New York Public Library Young Lions Award, the O Henry Award for short fiction and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and
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  • Andrew Sean Greer

  • Andrew Sean Greer is also the author of the story collection How It Was for Me and the novel The Path of Minor Planets. He lives in San Francisco.
  • Andrew Sean Greer Copyright Henry Dombey
    Andrew Sean Greer




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