The History of Love

historyofloveLeo 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.

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6 Responses to The History of Love

  1. Steph says:

    We read this one a while back (as in years ago) for my real life book club, and invariably, people who had previously read Foer’s work liked this book less than those who hadn’t. I was in the latter camp and was completely besotted by this book (my favorite character? Totally Alma’s brother, Bird. He rocked my world!)… and when I recently read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (I had held off, so that I could let this book fade from my mind), while I really enjoyed it, I didn’t love it like I did this one.

    At this point, way too much time has passed for me to be critical of it; all I can remember are the things that I loved about. In particular, the evocative writing really stands out. I just remember it being heartbreakingly beautiful.

  2. Jenny says:

    Dangit, now I can’t tell if I want to read this book or not. I do have the Foer on my TBR list, though. Hmmm.

  3. claire says:

    Like Steph, I just absolutely loved this book. Litvinoff’s book didn’t bother me. It was believable to me, being that it was a sort of an underground, obscure book, not something commercially popular. If it had been a bestseller, I would’ve wanted it to be better, if.

  4. Teresa says:

    Steph: That’s fascinating. I haven’t read EL&DC since it was fairly new, so my memories of it have faded, but I remember being totally swept up in it. I suspect that no matter which one you read first, the other will feel unoriginal by comparison, even though they’re both equally original and probably influenced each other. (And I agree that Bird is a great character. He added much needed levity to the book.)

    Jenny: Hmmm, indeed. If it helps, I will tell you that the Litvinoff bits are usually pretty short, and the rest is really quite good. The Foer bowled me over; I just loved it, but given Steph’s observation, I wonder what would have happened if I had read this first. I think I still would have liked the Foer more because this book lacks some of the play with layout and art that I liked so much in Foer’s book, but maybe the story would have seemed too derivative for me to get pulled in so easily. Maybe you could do the side-by-side comparison since Steph and I read them each years apart in a different order :-)

    Claire: I think you’re right that the book works as a sort of underground novel. I could buy that. I just couldn’t get behind the fact that the characters were so moved by it. It made me feel like I didn’t get them because I didn’t get the book they loved so much. If I hadn’t know what the book was like, maybe that barrier wouldn’t have been there.

  5. claire says:

    I get you now. I did feel that the characters were overly into the book. But then probably it’s because when they read it they were in a time and place where everything in their life seemed magical. I remember being in that position when I was younger.

  6. Pingback: Nicole Krauss: The History of Love « Bibliojunkie

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