From that last sentence, you may correctly surmise that I didn't really like this book. To be honest, when it was announced right back at the beginning of the year, I was pretty sure that I wasn't going to like it and so it proved. Maybe I talked myself into it, but if I did that conversation started several years ago.
The feeling that I would not like this book actually goes back to when I read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by her husband, Jonathan Safran Foer, more than six years ago. Tonight as I wrote this post, I went back and read my review of that book and read that I thought it would be interesting to compare that book with this book. Maybe I should have left it a few more years.
If you ask me though to quantify exactly what it was that didn't work for me, I would struggle to say that there was any one thing. There are multiple narrators, some more reliable than others, and each of them had something about them that I found frustrating. The main male character was Leo Gursky, a Jew who survived the Holocaust and found his way to America as a young man. He was also the author of the book The History of Love which plays a crucial role in this book. He wrote it to share with love of his life, Alma. She managed to get to America long before he did and, thinking he was dead, moved on with her life. Leo entrusted his manuscript to his friend who took it with him to South America. As an example of the kinds of things which shouldn't have annoyed me while I was reading but really did, when Leo was the narrator there were strange uses of the words But and And Yet. In both cases those little words would be used as whole sentences! Drove me crazy.
The other main character is Alma, a fourteen year old girl who was named after the main character in Leo's book. Her father had found a copy of the book and now, years after his death, Alma's mother is translating it from Spanish into English. Alma lives in New York with her mother and her younger brother Bird, who thinks he may well be a messiah. Alma embarks on a search to find out more about the author, and then later on to find more about the person who was the original Alma. In some ways, this novel also tells of her coming of age within the context of her family life and her searches.
Alma's chapters were predominantly written in lists which is an interesting technique to use, but there were times when I wanted more. I thought her family dynamics with a mother who doesn't seem to have moved on from the death of her husband, and the younger brother who struggles with basic socialisation skills was very interesting.
There are a couple of other narrators and there were times when I was very glad that at the beginning of each new narrative there was a symbol so we knew exactly who it was that was now telling the story. With the narrative moving backwards and forwards in time and place, I definitely had to work a bit harder than I normally like to keep up with the story developments.
All of that sounds quite negative but I don't doubt that Krauss is a very talented author, just not an author for me. There were scenes which had moved me quite a lot. For example, at the very beginning of the book when we first meet Leo his major concern is about being invisible and so when he leaves his apartment which is full of stuff he goes places and makes sure that he is seen. As an example on the first page he says "I try to make a point of being seen. I'll buy a juice even though I'm not thirsty. If the store is crowded I'll even go so far as dropping my change all over the floor, the nickels and dimes skidding in every direction. I'll get down on my knees. It's a big effort for me to get down on my knees, and even bigger effort to get up. And yet."
Yep, there's one of those "And yet."
Turns out I have quite a bit more to say about this book than I thought I would have. When I started this post, it was with the intention of making it a Bookish Quote post, where I share a quote about books or reading or libraries or anything like that and not much more!
The first section I chose comes from page 70. Please note that I have removed one word as that is kind of a spoiler for the events in the book.
Of the two thousand original copies printed of The History of Love, some were bought and read, many were bought and not read, some were given as gifts, some sat fading in bookstore windows serving as landing docks for flies, some were marked up with pencil, and a good many were sent to the paper compactor, where they were shredded to a pulp along with other unread or unwanted books, their sentences parsed and minced at the machine's spinning blades. Staring out the window, ......... imagined the two thousand copies of The History of Love as a flock of two thousand homing pigeons that could flap their wings and return to him to report on how many tears shed, how many laughs, how many passages read aloud, how many cruel closings of the cover after reading barely a page, how many never opened at all.
There is then a section where it is explained how one copy of the book ends up in a shop window, and then from page 74:
The next morning, the first rays of the rising sun fell across the cover of The History of Love. the first of many flies alighted on its jacket. Its mildewed pages began to dry out in the heat as the blue-gray Persian cat who lorded over the shop brushed past it to lay claim to a pool of sunlight. A few hours later, the first of many passerby gave it a cursory glance.The next book club book has been chosen and this time it is a short story collection that I have read before so I don't expect to struggle quite as much as I did with this one!
The shop owner did not try to push the book on any of her customers. She knew that in the wrong hands such a book could easily be dismissed, or worse, go unread. Instead she let it set where it was in the hope that the right reader might discover it.
Leo Gursky is trying to survive a little bit longer, tapping his radiator each evening to let his upstairs neighbour know he's still alive, drawing attention to himself at the milk counter of Starbucks. But life wasn't always life this: sixty years ago, in the Polish village where he was born, Leo fell in love and wrote a book. and although he doesn't know it, that book also survived: it crossed oceans and generations, and changed lives.
Fourteen-year-old Alma was named after a character in that book. These days she has he hands full keeping track of her little brother Bird (who thinks he might be the Messiah) and taking copious notes in her book, How to Survive in the Wild, Volume Three. But when a mysterious letter arrives in the post she undertakes and adventure to find her namesake, and save her family.
In her extraordinary new novel Nicole Krauss has created some of the most memorably and moving characters in recent fiction. A tale brimming with laughter, passion and soaring imaginative power, The History of Love confirms Nicole Krauss as one of the most remarkable writers of her generation.