Fourteen-year-old Alma Singer is trying to find a cure for her mother’s loneliness. Believing that she might discover it in an old book her mother is lovingly translating, she sets out in search of its author. Across New York an old man names Leo Gursky is trying to survive a little bit longer. He spends his days dreaming of the lost love who, sixty years ago in Poland inspired him to write a book. And although he doesn’t know it yet, that book also survived: crossing oceans and generations, and changing lives….
“I did it for myself alone, not for anyone else, and that was the difference. It didn’t matter if I found the words, and more than that, I knew it would be impossible to find the right ones.”
I’ve put off writing this review because I’ve been unable to articulate my thoughts about this book. I felt strongly about it, but was unable to pinpoint why.
Let me start from the beginning. For a project in English class we were asked to chose a novel off a list and write an essay on it. None of the novels appealed to me but I settled on The History of Love as being the lesser of the evils. It really didn’t sound like my type of book, but I’d been meaning to try it for ages. My initial reactions was neutral ambivalence. After paging through the book countless times, first while annotating and then when writing, I decided that I did like the book, though something in it was preventing me from loving it, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
Krauss’s writing is lovely and it is evident she has talent, however it didn’t shine through to it’s fullest potential. Let me try to explain. Sections of Leo’s writing are scattered throughout the book and they are brilliant. For example:
“Even now, all possible feeling do not yet exist. There are still those that lie beyond our capacity and our imagination. From time to time, when a piece of music no one has ever written, or a painting no one has ever painted, or something else impossible to predict, fathom or yet describe takes place, a new feeling enters the world. And then, for the millionth time in the history of feeling, the heart surges, and absorbs the impact.”
If this had been the entire novel I would have adored it. Alas, it was not and for someone with such a mastery of language, most of the novel is just simple language, not anything beautiful and provocative. For me, writing is one of the most important elements of a novel and I was missing that little extra that would have made the words come alive.
Leo’s story line was by far the best in all respects. I sympathized with him the most out of all the characters, found his story the most compelling and memorable and the best written. I didn’t really get the point of Litvinoff’s story line other than to serve the plot. Alma’s story is a little repetitive and the first person journal style narration falls short. It failed to allow me to connect with Alma and the writing became bland and over simplified. The best part is the titles of her journal entries which is where the creativity shines through.
Thematically, the novel tries to cover a lot: loss, isolation, love, death, human connection, change, guilt, order/meaning, but doesn’t go deep enough into others. The central focus of the novel is Alma’s mystery which I solved early on and missed the surprise. From a literary point of view Krauss’s ending brilliantly brought the characters together, however I was waiting for a punch line that never materialized. I finished the book going “so what?” It’s not that I missed the point of the novel, it just didn’t carry the punch it could, and should, have had.
Would I recommend it? No. Pick it up from a library if you’d like to give it a try.
“You could tell he had too much wisdom for his age. Probably he believed that he wasn’t made for this world. I wanted to say to him: If not you, who?”