The History of Love (and other things)

I’ve just checked out this year’s National Book Critics Circle awards, and I’m seeing that it’s good I’ve got Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss on my shelves, as she won for fiction, and the awards have also reminded me that I’d like to read Daniel Mendelsohn’s book The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, which won for autobiography and that I must, must, must read Lawrence Weschler soon, whose book Everything that Rises: A Book of Convergences won for criticism. I’ve got his book Vermeer in Bosnia on my shelves. I don’t like letting prizes dictate my reading — I like at least to pretend that I make book choices based on my own insights rather than other people’s, although surely that’s largely an illusion — but the awards are reminding me of books I’ve been interested in lately (the hundreds and hundreds of them — there’s little likelihood I’m getting to any of these really soon).

I finished Special Topics in Calamity Physics a couple days ago (post on that to come), and so now I’m working on finishing up some of my other books and will then choose another novel. I can’t decide exactly what I need right now — something old, perhaps Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, or something new (and shorter) like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Or something entirely different. We’ll see. I’ll let the impulse of the moment guide me.

But for now I want to write about having finished the audiobook of Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love, which I enjoyed very much and highly recommend. I find it hard to write about audiobooks because I don’t have the book in front of me to look at, and I can’t refresh my memory of the plot details or give you quotations, but I can say that this has some great characters and an intriguing plot, it has humor and pathos, it’s about people who write and who love books and reading, and although the book’s title makes it sound like it might be hopelessly and annoyingly sentimental, it’s not.

The novel introduces you to various characters and then throughout the story brings them closer and closer and reveals unexpected connections among them. It feels a little bit like a mystery. There’s Leo Gursky, an old man living in isolation in New York City, who has loved one woman in his life, named Alma, whom he knew when he was a boy in Poland, and then lost when she moved to America. He had written a novel called The History of Love before emigrating to America himself, but, because he left his hometown fleeing the Nazis, he lost the manuscript. There’s another Alma who’s a 14-year old trying to deal with her mother’s depression and her brother’s worrisome obsession with religion, who becomes fascinated with a novel called The History of Love, which her mother is translating. Much of the pleasure of the novel comes from the way it unravels the mystery of what happened to the manuscript and how Leo’s and Alma’s lives are connected.

I really liked Leo’s character; he’s funny and wise, and the narrator who read the sections devoted to him had a wonderful voice and accent. The narrator who read Alma’s sections had a voice I found a little grating, but she’s a wonderful character too, odd and quirky and smart in a way that can make teenagers’ lives a misery but turns them into fascinating adults.

This book is a pleasure, plain and simple.


Filed under Books, Fiction

12 responses to “The History of Love (and other things)

  1. So glad you enjoyed History of Love. I thought the characters were just so memorable. Can’t wait to hear what you thought of Special Topics in Calamity Physics.


  2. All right, it definitely goes on the TBR list. And isn’t that one of the annoying things about audiobooks: not being able to quote from them? I found that especially true while listening to Lolita. I’m going to have to go through a print version to try to find some of my favorite quotes. (Of course, the plus side of that is that long-suffering spouses don’t have to put up with constant reading of long quotes.)


  3. I SO want to read this. I bought it last summer and it is still sitting on the shelf reproaching me. I must get it out and onto a nearby pile. I’m really interested in what you have to say about the Marissa Pessl as I was horribly prejudiced against it (having read a glowing review I felt was a puff piece) so am very keen to know what you think.


  4. I’ve had Krauss’s book on my TBR list for awhile. I think I will now need to take the next step and purchase it. Looking forward to your thoughts on Special Topics. I hope you will make me excited to read it this summer 😉


  5. Dark Orpheus

    “I like at least to pretend that I make book choices based on my own insights rather than other people’s, although surely that’s largely an illusion” — I agree with you on that. I’m sometimes self-conscious about picking up a book because it’s a Booker Prize winner or something.

    I would like to pretend I am well-informed, and came to the choices on my own good taste. “Pretend” is the operational word here.

    An oh, for book adapted into films – it can seen rather plebian to pick up a book because it’s a film – but I do it ALL THE TIME. So I get the non-movie covers instead, so that I can pretend to have “good sense, good taste.”

    And you just reminded me that my order for “Vermeer in Bosnia” just came in. Will pick it up before yoga class today.

    Have a lovely weekend.


  6. I loved History of Love. I will be very interested to see whether you like Special Topics – I thought it a hard book to review..


  7. I have heard so many good things about the Krauss book–I want to read it eventually (I would say soon, but I say that about Every book and I can’t read them All soon!). I tend to pick up or at least notice award winning books, too. But there is a reason they win and the award just brings more awareness of the book/author to the general public–no problem with that in my mind. There are so many books out there, that you can’t possibly know about them all and this just helps more good lit to our attention. Good luck choosing a new book to read–that is always fun!


  8. And that would be “and this just helps BRING more good lit…”


  9. You’ve inspired me to give The History of Love another a go. I got stuck somehow, which almost never happens to me.

    As for choosing to read books if they’ve won prizes, I sometimes have no choice. I don’t have access to libraries with English books and the local bookshops have such truncated English sections – a few classics, a few crime novels and the prize-winners. I’m usually just grateful to find an English book I want to read!


  10. Iliana, yes, the characters were the best part of Krauss’s book — so well done.

    Emily — yes, the quoting thing is difficult, and also getting spellings right and then missing the typographical stuff, when the author experiments a bit or puts pictures in.

    Litlove, I’m guessing you will enjoy Krauss’s book when you get to it. As for the Pessl, I’m not so sure.

    Stefanie, I hope I don’t disappoint you about the Pessl book — even though I wasn’t overly fond of it, you might like it.

    Dark Orpheus — yes, God forbid I buy a book with a movie cover. But surely I’m influenced to by what’s being made into a film.

    Kate — there’s a lot of strange stuff in the Pessl book to talk about; I’ve already written my review and don’t feel like I covered it all that well.

    Danielle, whenever you get to the Krauss book (and I know what you mean about how long it might be!) I think you will really like it.

    Charlotte, thanks for the reminder of how lucky I am to have access to all the books I do!


  11. I had to smile at your potential reading selections. Oddly enough, I just finished by Elizabeth Gaskell, as well as Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I haven’t had time to blog about them yet, but I will soon.


  12. Must have messed up the html–I read North and South by Mrs. Gaskell.


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