Leo Gursky is a retired locksmith haunted by his memories of Alma, his one true love who left their hometown in Poland shortly before the Nazis invaded. Alma Singer is a 14-year-old girl haunted by memories of her dead father who named her after another Alma, a character in a book called The History of Love by Zvi Litvinoff.
Nicole Krauss’s novel, also called The History of Love, moves back and forth between Leo and Alma and a few other supporting characters. The story jumps backward and forward in time; different characters share the narration, and there are excerpts from books the various characters are reading and writing. For the most part, Krauss juggles everything remarkably well. She gives each speaker an individual voice, and I never found it hard to figure out who was narrating at any particular point.
Leo got my attention right away. There’s something about stories of old people living alone that get to me. Maybe they play into my own fears. Leo’s greatest fear is not to be seen, to die on a day when no one saw him. He makes a point of getting himself noticed by dropping change or trying on outlandish shoes, even modeling for a life drawing class. Anything to be seen. I liked Leo from the very beginning.
Alma took longer for me to warm up to. Her sections are made up of numbered paragraphs that are usually quite short and follow her own idiosyncratic logic. I couldn’t help but feel that these bits were derivative of Jonathan Safron Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and I found Foer’s young narrator to be just a little more endearing and Foer’s narrative style to be just a little more clever and engaging. (I did not know until after I finished this book that Krauss is married to Foer and that the two novels were published at the same time.) Alma did eventually grow on me, and by the mid-point of the book I was as interested in her as I was in Leo.
As the book goes on, Leo’s and Alma’s stories become more and more intertwined. Krauss does a great job of keeping the various narrative threads under control and making sure they all come together in the end. That’s not to say that this book has a neat and tidy ending—it doesn’t—but the questions that are raised get answered, and most of the character’s quirks and odd plot twists lead to some sort of payoff. Most of the revelations are not complete surprises, but it’s also never completely obvious what’s going to happen. To me, that’s the sign of good story construction.
My only real complaint with this book is that the book-within-the-book, Litvinoff’s The History of Love, is exactly the kind of book I don’t like to read. Every time there was a excerpt, I tuned out. It was all overblown metaphors and musings about a woman (or women) named Alma and the man (or men) who loved her (them?). Fortunately (for me), you don’t actually have to understand what happens in the book-within-the-book to follow and enjoy the rest of the story. But unfortunately, it was hard to fully buy in to a story in which people were so profoundly affected by writing that I disliked. The disconnect created an emotional gap between me and the characters that couldn’t quite be breached. Better, I think, to leave the profoundly moving narrative to the reader’s imagination. As it is, it disappoints and ends up weakening the overall impact of an otherwise excellent novel.