Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
The Confessions of Max Tivoli was a nice break from the plot-driven fiction I've been reading of late. Conforming to the style of a memoir, the book tells the story of the eponymous character from his point of view. The catch, of course, is that Max ages backward--born with the appearance of a seventy-year-old, growing younger until he only appears twelve at the time of his writing. Max's unusual attribute causes no end of trouble as he strives to obtain his one desire: love.
It's difficult to fall in love with the book, however. Its cast of supporting characters is quite small, and it focuses exclusively on Max's life. This has the consequence of putting turn-of-the-20th-century San Francisco into the perspective of a single person's life: momentous events like the 1906 earthquake and the first World War become footnotes in this autobiography. In the case of the latter, I found this rather refreshing. But the drawback is that you will only like this book if you like Max.
Andrew Sean Greer tries hard to portray Max as a sympathetic, perhaps even tragic, character. To be fair, Max is almost always a force of good in the world, trying to help the people close to him even as he deals with his unique circumstances. I'm not sure if it's Greer's heavy-handedness or deliberate, but Max often comes off as melodramatic. He frequently goes off on asides where he addresses potential readers of his manuscript (his son, Sammy, and his former wife, Alice), slipping into the second person, as he expresses his myriad regrets with his life.
When it comes to Max's unique circumstances, Greer makes the most of them as a storytelling device. Handwaving away issues of identity and property, Greer focuses on the ramifications to relationships. In particular, Max has trouble finding and keeping the love of his life, Alice, who first encounters him while he's an "old man" and finally becomes his adoptive mother. And we see him form a peer relationship with his son.
Nevertheless, there are numerous moments in The Confessions of Max Tivoli that made me cringe and wonder what purpose they served. For example, why did Hughie Dempsey, probably the only person left alive who knew of Max's true nature, choose to commit suicide like that? Why did Greer marginalize Max's existing family so much? Oh, Max manages to provide justification--he let them "slip away" as he became involved in his marriage with Alice--but it still feels like the book was unable to focus on more than one aspect of Max's life at a time. In short, as interesting as Max was due to his reverse ageing, he was a less complex character in other more conventional, ways that may matter even more.
I haven't read The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, nor have I seen the movie based on the story, so I'll avoid making any comparisons with Fitzgerald's work. Io9 has an interesting review to that effect. For a story about reverse ageing, The Confessions of Max Tivoli is an interesting exploration of a man trying to deal with the consequences of living backward. Unfortunately, it isn't always the moving memoir that it so desires to be.