Daniel Handler's Adverbs requires some tolerance early on. Billed as a novel, but structured more like a themed short-story collection, it starts out with a story of obsession that seems generically plotted and pretentiously written, all postmodern repetition and poetic gushiness. But like the Series Of Unfortunate Events books, which Handler writes for kids under his Lemony Snicket pseudonym, Adverbs deepens as it goes along, turning into something richer and more complicated than it seems at first blush. As characters, objects, and symbols, vault across plotlines to repeatedly re-emerge, and successive stories not only become stronger and better realized, but reflect back on previous chapters, the book takes on a keener, smarter edge. It's like watching a film come into focus.
Adverbs looks at love, and the stories' adverbial titles—"Naturally," "Truly," "Often," "Not Particularly," etc.—are keys to what kind of love, though they're also often metaphorical or even punny. Romantic love is heavily featured, but so are lust, longing, and obsession, as well as more platonic love: In one of the best installments, "Soundly," a girl named Allison spends an evening out with her best friend Lila, who's dying of a rare disease, and they both focus on what their friendship means, particularly compared to their relationships with men. "Allison" and "Lila" both crop up again as character names repeatedly throughout the book, and Handler is sometimes eminently clear about whether he's speaking about the same people. At other times, he's coy. In the terrific "Wrongly," Allison specifically references that evening with Lila as she heads off to a horrifying night—and in her imagination, a horrifying, desperate fling—with a creep named Steven, who also emerges from an earlier story. But is it the same Lila who was the focus of a desperate crush in "Obviously"? Handler's parallels and looping plotlines encourage close reading, re-reading, and scanning for clues.
But those mysteries aside, Adverbs simply gets better as it goes along, as its varieties of love become more complex and more familiar, and Handler finds lyrical, incisive ways of describing them, sometimes addressing readers directly or bringing himself into his story to make his point. Ultimately, the book starts to feel like a combination confessional and sympathy letter as well as a novel/anthology. The stories and the way they're told are clever, but the real message, pointed personally and knowingly at each individual reader, is "You know what this is like. You know how much it hurts." People who've been in love should understand.