Friday, November 26, 2010
In Which Trai Reviews 'The History of Love'
The Book: The History of Love
The Author: Nicole Krauss
How I Found It: The book itself and Nicole Krauss were mentioned a few times over on Jamie's blog, and I decided to check it out for myself!
The Review: In New York, two lonely people are living separate lives. The first, Leo Gursky, is a locksmith who escaped the SS during the Holocaust and is now living his life terrified of no one noticing his eventual death. He makes a point of being seen everywhere he goes, and his only companion is his friend Bruno. Leo is a writer who once loved a woman named Alma, and his memories of her haunt his days.
The second lonely person is Alma Singer, a fourteen-year-old girl named after a character in little-known Spanish novel called The History of Love. Alma is obsessed with learning how to survive in the wild, and with trying to stop her brother Bird's budding religious fanaticism from isolating him. Alma's mother, a widow, is a translator, and receives a letter from a man called Jacob Moritz, who asks her if she can translate The History of Love into English for him, naming a very high price. Her mother agrees, and Alma begins to wonder if Jacob Moritz is the man who can cure her mother's loneliness. Soon, she begins the search for her namesake, the Alma of The History of Love. Her search for Alma is interwoven with Leo's search for meaning, and interwoven with all of this is the surprising story of the original manuscript of The History of Love.
I love, love, love books about books. I mentioned this in my review of Jane Austen Ruined My Life. This isn't quite literary intrigue like that book or like Possession, my favorite of the genre, but it's a really involving story about a book that has changed lives. I cared about the characters, definitely, but in a way, I cared about the book more! Alma and Leo are our narrators, but there are also sections about The History of Love itself, and I enjoyed those passages the most.
This is one of the most beautifully written books I've read in a long time. Certain passages really struck me and I found myself really thinking about them. One of my favorites comes from the first section about Zvi Litvinoff, author of the titular book: "These things are lost to oblivion like so much about so many who are born and die without anyone taking the time to write it all down. That Litvinoff had a wife who was so devoted is, to be frank, the only reason anyone knows anything about him at all" (pg 70). The voices of all our narrators are clear and distinct, most especially Leo's, but I also loved the way Alma's chapters were done, with numbered headings expressing a thought that would then lead into a small vignette. I'm a sucker for multiple narrators, and the device worked very well here, since it was the thing weaving the separate storylines, all related to The History of Love together. Even the idea of "the history of love" had me intrigued before I even read the book! Krauss definitely has a way with evocative phrases.
I liked how nothing about this book ever really seemed conventional, or at least, not to me, it didn't. The history of the titular book is convoluted and interesting, and the lives of Leo and Alma are well-drawn and fascinating to read about. I got a real sense of Judaism (which I'm lucky enough to be a part of!) as I read it, but it never felt too overwhelming. I liked almost all of the characters and enjoyed spending time with them.
I suppose one could say that there isn't really too much of a plot here, besides Alma's quest to find her namesake, but I enjoyed the ride so much because it was written so well. One thing I did want towards the end was more resolution--I wouldn't have minded the book being longer, though I understand why it ended where it did. I found myself missing the characters and wanting to know what happened beyond the end. Even if the end seemed abrupt to me, I enjoyed every second of this book and am now eager to get my hands on Great House, Krauss' new book. I highly recommend this one to lovers of books about books and to people looking for well-written fiction.