Adverbs by Daniel Handler

Yael van der Wouden

Love is a candy from a stranger, but it’s candy you’ve had before and it probably won’t kill you.

The last time I did anything for Valentine’s Day was probably 2003. I was fifteen, overwhelmed and in love with just about everyone I knew. I must’ve sent out a few anonymous cards that were hardly anonymous, was convinced I was going to get a few in return—which immediately flipped into being convinced that the ones I was supposed to receive (and didn’t) had gotten lost in the mail. Surely what happened was that their sender couldn’t bring up the courage to admit their torrid feelings for me. Surely.

Book cover
HarperCollins  |  2006  |  288 pp

The reason I bring this up is—that while that Valentine’s itself (that one year in 2003 notwithstanding) is a whatever deal for me, there is something about talking about love at the worst tail-end of winter. (In the Northern hemisphere) Mid-February isn’t the depths of winter, it isn’t the coldest or darkest of it—but I’ll be damned if it isn’t the worst stretch of it. I’m always done in February, I’m done with the winter and with myself and my house and every single thing I own. And there’s something curious, something delightful, even, in taking that worst-version-of-myself moment in the year to talk about love. Goopy, unabashed, brash and honest love.

And so this week, for everyone who just cringed reading me write the word love four times in one paragraph, I want to put forward my favorite book in the world. Shall we guess what it’s about? If you reluctantly mumbled love, you’d be right. If you happened to’ve mumbled ‘birds’, you’d also be right.

Daniel Handler’s Adverbs is a collection of short stories, each one of them about love—about the ways in which we love: briefly, truly, frigidly, collectively. Hence the title, Adverbs. The opening story, ‘Immediately’, tells the story of a guy who breaks up with his girlfriend on a street corner, gets into a cab and immediately falls in love with the taxi driver, Peter. ‘Arguably’ follows Helena, a writer with self-esteem issues (unheard of!) who arguably struggles with what money (and not having it) does to love.

‘Briefly’ is one of my favorites, and I kind of cry each time I read it (if you are worrying now, do not worry: I love a good cry). It’s also one of the shortest stories of the collection, and spans all of a few minutes of the narrator’s afternoon. He is playing golf when his ball accidentally hits a magpie—kills it on the spot. This sends him down a memory rabbit hole to a single moment from his childhood: a summer’s day, watching his older sister’s boyfriend (“Keith”) step out of the shower. Keith had said “Hey,” nudged him, (below my armpit oh my God) and walked back to the pool. And in remembering this one moment, the narrator’s love for Keith rushes back to him something awful. Is it possible to love someone forever and not think of him for years? he wonders, Is it possible to lose someone who only stepped in front of you once in a towel? The narrator has to bury the Magpie and is beside himself with the memory of Keith, of having lost him, and through this he muses about love. About how it can be this sudden crash in your path, quick and to the point, and nearly always leaves someone slain on the green. I killed the bird and never saw Keith again and so I am alone this morning with blood on my shoe.

Every story, every narrator in Handler’s collection, has a version of this line. A moment where they reveal what love is to them, in their particular narrative. In ‘Soundly’ the narrator is at a bar with her best friend, Lila, who is kind of dying in a world where everything is kind of falling apart. This is love, the narrator thinks, looking at her friend talking to someone else, to sit with someone you’ve known forever in a place you’ve been meaning to go to, and watching as their life happens to them until you stand up and it’s time to go. You don’t care about yours.

In ‘Particularly’, Helena sees a sign in the teachers’ lounge that says YOUR MOTHER DOES NOT WORK HERE, presumably referring to the cleanliness, and thinks: Love is like this, plenty of places to sit but and overall feeling that the room needs a good uptight scrubbing until everything that mentions your mother had been washed away. In ‘Collectively’, a story where literally everyone in a neighborhood in San Francisco wakes up one day hopelessly in love with a guy called Joe living over at 1602, one character says love is like candy: Pretty much everybody has had some. Someone offers it on a day when you have nothing to do, and most likely you’ll take it and put it in your mouth.

In a mimicry of how friends and lovers can overlap and connect in strange ways, each story echoes another one in the collection: the characters all sharing names (there’s at least 3 Andreas, 2 Lilas and 5 Adams), jumping in and out of one another’s dreams. There’s birds everywhere. A volcano under San Francisco. I first read Adverbs before I had ever fallen in love myself. I also read it before I came out, long before I got to see queer characters in the popular culture I consumed. And so reading this book, brimful of queerness and love and everything I wished for myself—including the heartache—was, and still is, a revelation.

There’s this unspoken rule about recommending books where you’re not supposed to sell your favorite book as your favorite book—that both you and the reader will always end up disappointed. That to undersell a good book is to make sure it’ll be read. But there’s something about that that feels too much like flirting, like playing hard to get—and that, as I’m sure you’ve gathered—is not what this book is about. So let me be forward about it, be absolutely brash and say: I love this book. I wish for you to read it. I wish for you to love it too.

Best read: today, tomorrow. In bath. In movement, I think, maybe while walking somewhere? With your favorite parts said out loud.