Thursday, May 2, 2013

The History of Love

by Nicole Krauss
W.W. Norton     2005
252 pages     Fiction

There once was a book called The History of Love. Published in South America, it affected a young man so greatly that he named his daughter Alma after one of the characters in the book. Nicole Krauss's book by the same name is the story of that book, and through convoluted turns, it tells the stories of several people and their involvement with The History of Love

There are several parallel stories happening in the chapters of Krauss' book. Luckily for the reader, each chapter heading has a small symbol which helps you know who the narrator is in advance. Alma is a young teenager. Her father has died, her mother, a book translator, is in deep grief, and Alma feels that if she could solve the mysteries of The History of Love, her mother would become happy again. Her other missions are to make her little brother appear normal, and to have some friends. Leo is an old man, an immigrant from the Polish holocaust. He is connected with another man named Litvinoff and they are both connected with the book, as well.

The characters are very unique. Leo is worried about dying alone. He and his friend Bruno, who lives upstairs, have a code: "Three taps means ARE YOU ALIVE?, two means YES. one NO." Leo has had a hard life, and he should be angry but he says, "I had left my anger somewhere long ago. Put it down on a park bench and walked away." He is on a search for a son, Isaac, who may or may not know that Leo is his father.

Darling Alma is on a search for purpose, like many teenagers. She has the additional burdens of her suffering mother and spacey brother. Alma says that her mother "chose her father, and to hold on to a certain feeling, she sacrificed the world."  Little by little, Alma wades through the mysteries of The History of Love and brings together some sense to the seemingly disparate lives. 

The History of Love is a sentimental book, but not one you weep over. It is more the kind of book that you savor and sigh when it is finished. I once edited a dissertation written by a psychotherapist who had studied the burden of the holocaust on the emotional well being of modern Jews. There is some of that sentiment evident in The History of Love as Leo and Alma search for meaning. 

Reviews of The History of Love are all over the place. Apparently people either Loved (with a capital L) the book or hated it. The Washington Post reviewer loved it and calls it a "beautiful confusion." In speaking of Alma and Leo, he says, "the persistence of love drives them to an astonishing connection. In the final pages, the fractured stories of the History of Love fall together like a desperate embrace." The New York Times reviewer felt that the book's structure and mystical nature were too close to the structure of the books of Krauss' husband, Jonathan Safran Foer. Her review is really quite devastating; I probably wouldn't have read the book if I had read that review first. Lucky for me, I didn't know that Krauss was married to Foer. So, I was reading the book without any of those prejudices. When I looked at the reviews on Goodreads, I noticed that the most positive reviews came from men, while women were much more critical. I alternately loved and hated it. It is beautifully written, and I became caught up in the words, but I grew a bit impatient as I waited for the confusion to resolve itself. 

 My book club read this book last month in anticipation of a visit by Nicole Krauss to the Dowagiac Dogwood Fine Arts Festival on May 10. I am looking forward to hearing her talk. Here is an original e story that you can read called An Arrangement of Light. Her other books are: Man Walks Into a Room and Great House.

Nicole Krauss' Website:
 The New York Times Review:

No comments: