“Adverbs” is a book that insists on calling itself a novel, when in fact it more closely resembles a collection of interconnected short stories. Its author, Daniel Handler, also usually insists on calling himself something else: Lemony Snicket, the Gothic children’s novelist. This book is his third for adults, and yet certain things about this book are very reminiscent of Snicket.
Simply put, “Adverbs” is about love. Each chapter title is an adverb, suggesting how the characters will experience love in that particular story. The first chapter is called ‘Immediately’, and the last, ‘Judgmentally’.
Love is a concept that’s been praised, deplored, and rehashed in all its forms through every artistic medium known to man, and the key to producing another work of art with love as its theme is to represent it uniquely, but still convincingly.
Handler’s book is certainly unique. On the other hand, its aim isn’t so much to convince the reader of the reality of the love depicted within its pages, but simply to take them for an enjoyable ride through the author’s prose and wordplay: “Love was in the air, so both of us walked through love on our way to the corner.”
Another aspect of the novel that stands out is the symbolism, which can sometimes seem a little contrived and in-your-face. Imagery of things like magpies, potatoes, and diamonds pepper the various chapters and the book is often self-referential, specifically pointing out metaphors and other literary devices used in it.
Moreover, the narratives aren’t sequential and characters waltz in and out of chapters at different ages and in different relationships. One has to decode the personality and actions of each character to figure out which ones are interacting at a certain point.
All this can make the novel seem a bit pretentious, but don’t be put off by that. Despite its minor shortcomings, it really is a fantastic representation of love in all its glory, difficulty, and unpredictability.
It demands a second and perhaps a third reading to really appreciate every carefully plotted detail. There’s definitely scope for an in-depth analysis of the people, places, and things in Adverbs. But it seems as though the plot nor the underlying meaning matter as much as the experience, and letting Handler’s smooth prose wash over you.
In ‘Truly’, referring to the imagery in the book, he says, “It is not the diamonds or the birds, the people or the potatoes; it is not any of the nouns. The miracle is the adverbs, the way things are done. It is the way love gets done despite every catastrophe.”
It is the way Handler’s remarkable novel chooses to express this most complex of all human emotions that will continue to attract readers to it, frequently, magnetically, and eternally.