Sparked by Words


The History of Love begins with an obituary and ends with the same – not a propitious beginning for a novel unless it is written by Nicole Krauss. Fortunately for readers, this book is. It contains a book within the book, one that is published under a thief’s name, and a view about love so enduring that no other person can take the place of the beloved. It is also about a search for a child, a child’s search for identity, and the true authorship of books.

This book won my heart as a reader but also as a writer. The first time I read it was pure pleasure as I became immersed in the story, eager to find out the ending but reveling in every phrase written, every image suggested, every new twist to a maze of a story. At the second reading, I paid attention to Krauss’ brilliant plot construction, character development, and psychological insight. She is a master writer, and for someone like me still learning to write, she is an entire writing class in a single volume.

The book is dense with imagery and poetic language, a gift for those who savor words and yearn to be kidnapped by story. It’s also complex and confusing, demanding sleuthing skills usually reserved for murder mysteries, and I found myself re-reading passages to reorient within the novel. The two main characters are each haunted people who brought me to tears and occasional laughter as I unraveled their stories. Leo Gursky, an old Polish Jew, now lives in New York. He is a Holocaust survivor without heirs or friends, afraid of dying alone and unrecognized. Once spying on the son he didn’t know about until, he is devastated to learn that he has died, a famous author who never knew his father. Leo has loved one woman in the world, and for her he wrote a book about love.

Fourteen-year-old Alma Singer, bereft from the loss of her father to cancer, is convinced she is named after an Alma from an old story about undying love, her parents’ favorite. She wants to find a man who can love her grieving, widowed mother and give her a reason to live. Her younger brother, Bird, is strangely obsessed, believing he is one of the thirty-six lamed vovnik, the righteous people chosen by God for whom the world is made. Like many impassioned teenagers, Alma feels the world’s weight pressing upon her shoulders and struggles to balance the responsibilities of saving herself, her brother, and her mother.

Tangled in the journeys of these two is the history of the book Leo wrote decades earlier and another book that Alma’s mother is translating. Both of course are Leo’s The History of Love. Then there is Zvi Litvinoff, who has claimed and secretly published Leo’s book as his own work; Bruno, Leo’s one friend until he dies; and Isaac, the son Leo never met. A less polished writer might have written a muddle of a book out of such disparate parts, but Krauss penned a taut and multi-dimensional story.

The end is somewhat ambivalent, readers debating exactly what has happened, a bit of magical realism claiming its part of the story. What is understood is that love is all consuming and eternal, that sometimes the obvious facts don’t add up until you find all the other facts, and that no matter who writes a book, love endures and makes all things possible. Krauss has conveyed intuition about writing, love, relationships, and identity in a story with an apt title.

My favorite line from the book is this: Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering. Who of us does not want to be so consumed by love that it spins our world and lets us breathe?

It’s a book I’ve kept and one I’ll read again, not to discover more of the writer’s technique but for the pure pleasure of enjoying a story well told. And that is what a good book should be.

The History of Love won the 2008 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing for fiction.


Other books that were serious contenders for H:

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Harry Potter (entire series) by J.K. Rowling

Hawaii by James Michener

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Heidi by Johanna Spyri

Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

He, She and It by Marge Piercy

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus

The House of the Spirits by Isabelle Allende

The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy

The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan


I look forward to learning about your favorite H fiction books.


Book cover image courtesy: Google images and W.W. Norton & Company

Comments on: "H is for The History of Love" (21)

  1. I read The Hunt for Red October before it became a movie. The first part was difficult to get through because of all the details about subs. Once past that though, the story moved right along.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glynis, I’m giggling as I read your comment. I’ve often told the other writers in my critique group that if they start describing situations too technical for me, I’ll probably let my eyes glaze over until I’ve turned enough pages to get to the part I like. I can never understand battle maneuvers or complex game strategies, so those passages get a bye from me. But The Hunt for Red October left me breathless, and I kept thinking that it had to be based on a true event. For years, I’d get very alert when I heard a Russian accent, wondering if that person could have been a crew member from the sub.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Your favorite quote from the book expresses love the way I’ve always romanticized the feeling. It’s just the sort of expression I look for when reading, watching love in a movie and witnessing love in my life circle. May we all find a moment when love affects us this way. Giver or receiver.

    Once again, I haven’t read your submission but you’ve done a fine job of convincing me to do so, Shari. Happy New Year.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a great line, Shari–kidnapped by the story. This book does sound worth the effort (what you allude to as complex and more). I like the other H options too–Hawaii. A personal favorite.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Jacqui, it was a book I couldn’t put down. So much so that I read the final page and turned it back to page 1 to start it again. I’ve read many of the books on this list more than once, a few 6 times, but this was one of the few I read a second time without another book between. So I was definitely kidnapped by the story and unwilling to be rescued.

      I loved Hawaii but read it a year or two after we moved to Hawaii. I was not even in high school yet and probably too young to understand parts it. The prologue was captivating, however, and once I was that far into the story, I just kept going.


  4. Beautifully stated, Sharon, I love that line you quoted, how fantastic to be struck by the writing that it lives and breathes even after you’ve closed the book. Definitely what we all strive for as writers, and hope for as readers!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve never heard of this one! I’ll have to give it a try. (I think my TBR shelf just groaned.)

    I love many of the other H books you’ve listed, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about The Handmaid’s Tale and how scarily prescient it’s turned out to be.

    Liked by 1 person

    • For scarily prescient, try He, She and It – by Marge Piercy. I just finished it and am still whirling. A dystopian sci-fi book written in 1991 and yet frighteningly ominous for 2017. The world is destroyed by nuclear war and all that remains are a few enormous corporation/countries, AKA multis, where chosen people live in relative safety and comfort producing goods that make the elite in the multis more powerful and wealthy. Outside the protective domes is the Glop, a vast nuclear wasteland ruled by violent gangs, thugs, thieves, and pirates, where everyone is sickened by radiation poisoning. In the free city of Tikva, a brilliant computer genius builds a cyborg, Yod, so human-like that his birth by circuitry is difficult to detect. He’s loved by Shira who wants desperately to get back her little boy from the multi where she once worked and that dismissed her when she divorced her husband, who then took her son from her. Parallel to this story is one told by Malkah, Shira’s beloved grandmother, born before the Two Week War that destroyed earth. Malkah tells Yod the story of the golem of Prague built by the Maharal, the famous, great rabbi of the city. A long and complex story in which Piercy captures (nearly) every beat perfectly. (She has no idea how children think, speak, or act.) LOVED


  6. I feel like a literary schlub when I read your reviews. How you describe the books and your experience reading them always makes me think “I should read that!” “I should read novels”, “I should be better read”, “I should be smarter and more like Shari.”

    Does Baby Huey Comics count as “H” or “B” . . .

    Liked by 1 person


      It’s pretty late and my contact is getting a bit blurry, so I first read your reply as “literary shrub” and thought that wouldn’t be so bad. I like plants. But you said “literary schlub” and now I’m cracking up and my contact is getting blurrier.

      Funny thing is that I keep wishing I was as smart and expressive as you.

      If Baby Huey is fiction, it counts as H and B! So, yes…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. love this! you took my ‘h’s’, as I love Allende & Tan 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I had to read both Marge Piercy and Margaret Atwood for a feminist literature class I took in college. Maybe it was because I was surrounded by New York militants in the class and hated the angry woman who taught it, but I couldn’t bring myself to like any of the characters in the authors’ books. This is just my personal experience but I’ve found militants to be misanthropes. And to my surprise (maybe not so much surprise) my experience with militant feminists is that they tend to hate women more than they don’t like men.

    I find dystopian things far too depressing. Why even get up in the morning? I’m not sure what the point of that type of story is. Is it to make us hate humanity even more?
    Which reminds me of two H books. A People’s History of The United States by Howard Zinn which is a decidedly one-sided and simplistic version of America and by comparison A History of the American People written by a Brit Paul Johnson. Johnson’s book reads like the best of novels. The characters are flawed,complex and fascinating. Johnson captures what it’s like to be human. Zinn’s book is written to make people mad, depressed and hopeless. I found it offensive that my son was forced to read it for AP History. It’s brainwashing pure and simple (accent on simple).

    And there’s my opinionated comment for the day, Shari! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • He, She and It is the first Piercy book I’ve read and I liked it but I found her characters a bit too simplistic. (See my reply to Ilene Goldman if you’re interested in my brief synopsis.) I’m not as much into sci-fi as some, finding it often more weird than insightful. The best of any type of literature, in my opinion, is that which offers understanding of the world we live in even if it isn’t completely parallel or historically accurate. I liked Atwood’s earlier work, especially Cat’s Eye and The Robber Bride, but Oryx and Crake left me feeling like I’d wasted my time. I did indeed loathe both characters.

      I don’t always agree with you, Adrienne, but I enjoy your comments – always something to think about.


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