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