Aug 11, 2009

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

The History of Love’s two narrators are fourteen-year-old Alma Singer, named after a character from an obscure book named The History of Love, and Leo Gursky, a retired locksmith and Holocaust survivor. Alma has been trying to make her widowed mother feel less sad for years, while also worrying about survival in the wild, her brother, who everyone calls Bird due to his tendency to jump from high places, and her friendship and maybe something more with Misha.

As for Leo, he fears that he’s disappearing, and so every day he comes up with a plan to make himself noticed. His biggest fear is to die in a day when he hasn’t been seen by anyone, so when he goes out he does goofy or clumsy things to make sure people actually see him. Leo still often thinks of Alma, a girl he loved as a young man in Poland long ago. Like Alma Singer, the book The History of Love is at the centre of his life.

I think it takes a lot of talent to write a book that deals with loneliness this deep, with losses this immense, without actually being depressing. It takes a lot to combine sadness and humour as well as Nicole Krauss does. The writing is what makes this book so perfect: it’s so tender, so funny, so moving. Both narrators’ voices are so unique. Reading this I was reminded of Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland, one of my all-time favourite books. The books aren't actually all that similar, but this should give you an idea of how much I enjoyed The History of Love.

I love quirky, smart young narrators, and Alma is nothing if not one. And I love older narrators, and often wish there were more of them in fiction. I should specify that I love them if they’re real and complex and not just a token old person, and Leo Gursky absolutely is. Finally, I love stories about stories, and, among many other things, The History of Love is one: a story about the power of writing and memory, about how stories make us real, about how they are real in their own unique way.

And another thing The History of Love is about is, well, human connections of all kinds: falling in love, family ties, friendship, small gestures of kindness between strangers, anything you can think of, really. Nicole Krauss brilliantly explores their importance, and the gap their absence leaves in people's lives.

The one thing about this novel I was less than thrilled about was the ending. I didn’t know what to make of it, and so I waited a while to write this post. Over a week later, I still don’t know what to think. This is not a novel that asks for a neat resolution, I don’t think, but the way it ended felt a little too abrupt to me. I suspect that was part of the point, though, and that I’ll appreciate the ending more on a second read.

Favourite passages:
The idea of evolution is so beautiful and sad. Since the earliest life on earth, there have been somewhere between five and fifty billion species, only five to fifty million of which are alive today. So, ninety-nine percent of all the species that have ever lived on earth are extinct.

He learned to live with the truth. Not to accept it, but to live with it. It was like living with an elephant. His room was tiny, and every morning he had to squeeze around the truth to go to the bathroom. To reach the armoire to get a pair of underpants he had to crawl under the truth, praying it wouldn’t choose that moment to sit on his face. At night, when he closed his eyes, he felt it looming above him.

At the end, all that’s left of you are your possessions. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never been able to throw anything away. Perhaps that’s why I hoarded the world: with the hope that when I died, the sum total of my things would suggest a life larger than the one I lived.
Other Opinions:
Shelf Love
Vulpe Libris
Books.Lists.Life
Kiss a Cloud
B&B Ex-Libris
A Reader’s Journal
In Spring it is the Dawn

(Did I miss yours?)

And here’s a video of Nicole Krauss talking about writing:


52 comments:

  1. Thank you Nymeth, this looks lovely. I'm sure it's already on my tbr but I'm moving it up now.

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  2. I loved this book when I read it. It reminded me in parts of Jonathan Safran Foer's novels and, funnily enough, he is married to Nicole Krauss.

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  3. Care, I think you'll really like it :)

    Claire: I had heard a lot about the similarities, especially to Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and perhaps for that reason I didn't find it as similar as I was expecting to. But there's definitely a similar kind of sensibility behind their books. No wonder they fell in love! What did you make of the ending?

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  4. Nymeth, i felt this book was special but lacking in the ending as well. I wonder has she written anything else?

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  5. I read this a few years ago and I can't remember the ending for the life of me! But I do remember really liking the book. Great review :)

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  6. This sounds perfect for me, and I really like your excerpts - actually I think my parents have this book.

    (You would be surprised how often I read about a book on someone's book blog and think, hm, I believe I've seen that at my parents' house. Their house exerts a gravitational force on books that sucks them in and never lets them leave.)

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  7. I can't remember the ending either! I was a few years ago too that I read it and I have a hopeless retention for full plot details anyway hence why I now blog (not that blogging helps me remember endings as I wouldn't spoil it for others!)

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  8. It is a shame the ending doesn't really comply with the rest of the book. It sounds like a good read though. I didn't realise there was a book called Eleanor Rigby, I shall have to look that one up too.

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  9. I've been meaning to borrow this from a friend. I'll have to ask her if she still has it.

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  10. Oh, I so agree with you...I wish there were more older narrators. They can bring such a wonderful, rich, unique perspective. I've never understood why "old people" are so easily dismissed, as least in youth-oriented, hurry-hurry culture that seems to reign supreme here in this country.

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  11. I read this book in my pre-blogging days and absolutely loved it. I remember wishing there was someone else I could talk to about the ending. I don't remember it now either, but I remember I loved the book. Maybe that's what the author was going for??

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  12. I love when you review books on my TBR pile, especially when you enjoy them! I will have to move this up and then see what I think about the ending.

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  13. I'll have to check out this book...sounds intriguing even if the ending isn't neatly tied up.

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  14. Like regularrumination and Paperback Reader, I read this a while ago & can't remember the ending at all (much less tiny plot details)--but I love the quote you pulled about hoarding. May have to go back to this one...Thank you.

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  15. I’ve heard of this book and have read many positive reviews about it. Thanks again for a great review!

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  16. Every time I read your thoughts on a book that I've read some time ago, I feel like getting it again, re-reading it so that I can use your review as a guide!! Beautiful!! I loved this one too!!

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  17. I always love your reviews! Even when I've heard so much about a book, you always have something interesting to say! :)

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  18. You make it sound like such a beautiful book that I'm going to have to pick this up as a present for my wife, who loves this time period. And of course the benefits of presents for one's spouse is they are there to partake of as well!!!

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  19. I loved this one, but I found it really hard to review. The chronology really took me by surprise.

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  20. "I think it takes a lot of talent to write a book that deals with loneliness this deep, with losses this immense, without actually being depressing" <-- sometimes I avoid reading such books because they get so depressing. But, from the excerpt you chose, it sounds like there's some subtle humor in there to make the story less so. I'm definitely up for that!

    --Sharry

    --Sharry

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  21. I've heard of this one before and thought it sounded interesting. As usual you have me thinking I should put this one of my wishlist which is just as bad as my tbr pile now.

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  22. This book sounds very thought provoking and you've got me curious about the ending.

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  23. Yay, Ana! You finally got to it. I understand what you mean about the ending, although I really loved it because it wasn't predictable. I want to reread it!!! So beautiful.

    I have Foer's Extremely Loud here, but saving it.

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  24. I've been curious about this book since reading about the similarities between it and her husband's book, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (which I see was mentioned in earlier comments). But I cried so much while reading Extremely Loud that I'm not sure I can take another book that packs such an emotional punch.

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  25. Another one I wouldn't usually pick up by the sound of it, but it does sound good. Shame you were confused and a little let down by the ending though.

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  26. I've seen this around but didn't pick it up. Now you've made me change my mind after reading your review! ;)

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  27. I remember being really affected by this book, but like others who left comments, I can't remember the ending! Ack! I have to get it again and find out!!!

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  28. I've had this one on my TBR list but just haven't picked it up yet. It does sound really good though so thanks for reminding me about it.

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  29. This was one of my favorite reads from last years. I loved it so much I recommended it for my f2f book club. Not one person liked it. I was crushed. I'm glad you liked it so much.

    A book I recently finished that features a teen narrator and an old hunchback narrator and also, a book that I loved is The Story of Forgetting.

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  30. I read this pre-blog and I'm ashamed to say I can't remember a single thing about it. I do remember being underwhelmed, though, which puts me in a minority.

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  31. I'll have to put this one on my list, it sounds intriguing. I like the juxtaposition of two very different narrators, when it's done well.

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  32. I have just read (and loved) Eleanor Rigby, so this book sounds right up my alley. It is really hard to write about loneliness without sounding depressing or overly clichéd, and I applaud any author that manages it. And you are so right about older narrators. They have so much more life experience, that their loneliness is all the more tragic (and worrying..). Thanks for the review, I would not have picked this book up otherwise.

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  33. Aimee: She's published another novel, Man Walks Into a Room, and a few short stories. Must get my hands on them!

    Lu: I wonder if I'll forget it too.

    Jenny: I love it when that happens. I recently grabbed my mother's copy of The Shadow of the Wind because of all the great blog reviews of it I've seen.

    Claire: Now you all have me wondering if it'll stay with me. Maybe this post will help me remember, or maybe I'll read it, remember I didn't quite like it, and wonder why :P I'm not good at remember plot details either...I remember the mood of a mood and particular scenes sometimes, but not the whole story.

    Vivienne: Yes, you must! It's a lovely book, and it really is about all the lonely people and where they all come from :D

    Lenore: I hope she does!

    Debi: I know I keep saying this, but seriously, you NEED to read Terry Pratchett's Witches books :P

    Tricia: I kind of suspect so, yes. It was probably supposed to leave us feeling like this.

    Meghan: I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

    Serena: It probably suits the story better this way than if it had been neat, but still, it was unexpected!

    ds: You all have been convinced I'll forget it before I forget the rest of the book now :P

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  34. The Elegance of the Hedgehog has a great quirky young girl narrator, whose story and voice alternates with a very human older woman narrator. If you haven't already read it, you should consider.

    I, too, loved The History of Love (though hate the title) and rememer being smacked by the ending, although I can't remember it at all!

    I didn't like the ending of Elegance, either, so be forwarned.

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  35. What a beautiful review, Nymeth! I've seen this one everywhere but never thought to pick it up. Maybe the title caused me to think it would be far more romance-like than it is. But now I know :-)

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  36. I really didn't like this book... It just didn't work for me. I agree with you on the ending. It was a while ago so I can't go into detail on what else I didn't like anymore.

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  37. I have this on my wishlist, it looks soooo good.

    Oh and too funny, I had a bookmooch from Portugal and thought thought it would have been 'small world' had it been you. It wasn't (obviously you know this) but a part of me *did* think "yay, I'm sending to Ana's country". LOL.

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  38. I have had this on my shelves for over a year, and had kind of forgotten it. I'm really glad you reviewed it, and that your review was so positive. Aside from the abrupt ending, this book sounds beautiful and I am going to grab it off the shelf and get to it as soon as I can. Great review!

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  39. I read this one a few years ago and didn't like it much, though I can't remember why. It just wasn't for me, I guess. Although judging by your review and others' comments, maybe I just didn't get it. :-)

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  40. This is a book I've been meaning to read since I first heard about it a couple of years ago. I had planned to read it last year, but somehow never managed to.

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  41. This book was wonderful on audio, too - both readers were perfect! I don't remember the ending either, and it looks like I'm in good company. I do remember wanting to talk about it at the time. Reading your review makes me want to read the book again...

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  42. Andreea: You're welcome! I hope you enjoy the book :)

    Staci: I think I'll be reading this again in the future too :) And thank you so much for the kind words!

    J.T: Aw, thank you!

    Carl: This is more focused on contemporary life than on the war period itself, but I still think anyone interested in books about WW2 will like it. I hope Mary enjoys it!

    Lisa: It was unusual, wasn't it? But I think she made it work.

    Sharry: Yes! There's lots of subtle humour, and that keeps it from becoming bleak.

    Dar: Mine's in a terrible state too...what can we do :P

    Bermudaonion: I think knowing in advance that the ending won't give you all the answers might help.

    Claire: Even though it took me longer than I expected to get around to it, I still want to thank you for making me bump it up the pile. I hope you love Extremely Loud too :)

    Charley: It's good to be in the right mood, I guess. They're beautiful books, but yes, very sad.

    Rhinoa: I was more surprised that it ended when it did than confused. Especially because there was still a fair amount of pages to go, but the final 20 pages or so only have a few sentences each, so it was over much quicker than I expected!

    Melody: Good :P

    rhapsodyinbooks: I'm hoping at least one of you will read it again before I forget the ending myself, so that we can discuss it :P

    Sam: I hope you enjoy it!

    Booklogged: Aw, sorry to hear they didn't like it! And thanks for recommending The Story of Forgetting - it sounds excellent and I'm adding it to my wishlist.

    softdrink: It seems to be a love it or hate it kind of book!

    Ali: Me too. And I think she does it very well.

    Mariel: I completely agree! I think you'll enjoy this - I remember how much you loved Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and like some of the commenters were pointing out, there are some similarities between the two.

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  43. Anna Katterjohn: I've seen both positive and negative reviews of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, but I think I will give it a try. You're right that the title The History of Love doesn't seem to bit the book too well.

    Aarti: Like Anna was saying, it's not the best title :P I hope you give it a try sometime.

    Kailana: Sorry you didn't like it! For me, the good far outweighed the bad.

    Christina: hehehe :D There's quite an active Portuguese community on Bookmooch, actually! Very kind of you to send internationally, by the way :)

    Zibilee: It is beautiful! I look forward to your thoughts :)

    Naida: I may have cried :P

    Joanna: I wouldn't say you didn't get it! Taste is taste, after all.

    Literary Feline: I could say the same about so many books...the good old books versus time battle :P

    JoAnn: I'm hoping some of you will :P I'd really love to discuss it with someone.

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  44. This sounds amazing. Characters with depth and a focus on stories... I'm there.

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  45. I **loved** Leo Gursky when I read this novel. Oddly, although I really liked this book, I haven't been able to bring myself to read her other novel, Man Walks Into a Room - has anyone read that one?

    I also agree with everyone re: the similarities between Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer, and how interesting it is that they have the same sensibilities as writers and are also married. I wonder how much they have influenced each other artistically, or if they were this much alike from the start.

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  46. I'm not sure if I'd read this but it's a good book from what I see here. Thanks for the review, Ana!

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  47. Memory: There's no going wrong when those things are involved, is there? :P

    Booksnob: I haven't read Man Walks Into a Room, but I'm curious about it. I remember reading somewhere that Krauss and Foer actually met through their agent when they'd both finished the novels - no wonder they were drawn to each other.

    Alice, you're welcome!

    Madeleine, I'm glad to hear it :)

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  48. Your review has definitely piqued my interest in this book. :-)

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  49. It's been quite a while since I read this but thanks for reminding me about Leo. He was a great character. I know what you mean about liking older characters if they're "real and complex".
    Here's my review if you're interested.

    Have you read anything by Siri Hustvedt yet? If you enjoyed this I think you'd really like Hustvedt's What I Loved.

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  50. Steph, I'm glad to hear it :D

    tanabata: I added your link - sorry that I missed it before! And yes, Leo really was great. I haven't read Hustvedt, but to the list What I Loved goes.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.