Wednesday, August 1, 2012

On 'The History of Love'

"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."

The first time I read this line, I thought, I just have to read the book where this quote was lifted from! Being a sucker for fairy tales is one reason. Another is because I had a strong feeling that it's going to be a great read. You ever had that connection? You haven't read any works from that obscure author and yet after reading the blurb, you strongly felt like it's going to be your next favorite book. Well I had that with Nicole Krauss' The History of Love. And Bennard, being so supportive in my new hobby, bought the last copy Fully-Booked Shangri-La had that time.

The story revolves around Leo Gursky, a Holocaust survivor from Poland who came to America for refuge and for the hope to find the only girl he ever loved. Unknown to him, this girl, who left for America before the Germans invaded their place, was pregnant with his baby. She heard about the killings in Poland and, after not receiving replies to her letters, thought he was dead. She gave birth to a son, who grew up to become a famous writer, and married another man. Eventually, Leo found her and realized that he was too late. He stayed in America, learned the trade of being a locksmith, and watched his boy grow up from a distance. He then wrote a book which he titled "Words for Everything."

In another side of the story is a girl named Alma whose father died. Her mother had become very lonely and so she is determined to make her happy again. Thinking that the book, "The History of Love," which her father gave her mother holds an answer, she sets out to find the key to her problem.

The History of Love is the first book I've read written in an unconventional manner. It has four point of views--Leo's, Alma's, that of a third person telling the story of Zvi Litvinoff (author of the book "The History of Love," the one given by Alma's father to her mother) and, by the last chapters, Bird's (Alma's younger brother). The novel-within-a-novel style is also employed by Krauss. Since this is my first book of hers, I cannot tell whether this is an ambitious work or if she had tried writing this way before. But judging it based on what I read, she seems adept to this style, experimental or not. Although it can get confusing at times--I had to go back a few pages sometimes to confirm whether what IS happening is what I THINK is happening--all it takes is a little patience until the different pieces come together. Another commendable thing about this book is Krauss' beautifully written imagery. She knows how to string words together to come up with a wonderfully vivid picture in your mind. Sometimes I even pause while reading to take it all in. I would quote passages if I could, but perhaps not all because there'd be too many. Here are among the most memorable:

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 just to get 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. 
It  was as if someone had struck a gong in his chest. His whole body reverberated with the news.
My mother did not choose a leaf or a head. She chose my father, and to hold on to a certain feeling, she sacrificed the world.
Because nothing makes me happier and nothing makes me sadder than you.
The first woman may have been Eve, but the first girl will always be Alma.
The characters in the book are also unforgettable and unique. Leo is an old man; reminiscing is a regular pastime for him. His musings are usually sad (as a Holocaust survivor, it's perfectly understandable), but when it reaches the point of depressing, he suddenly turns the mood around by being hilarious. He is the prime example of funny and poignant, the reason why it's difficult not to love him. Alma, on the other hand, is the reason why this book can be classified as a coming-of-age story. She can get impulsive, but is determined once she puts her heart into something. Meanwhile, Bird is the innocent one. He is inquisitive and he thinks rather maturely compared to kids of his age. While some may see him as "abnormal," I like to believe that he is just sensitive and mindful of others' feelings. Perhaps, this was brought about by the grief over his father's death.

In general, the book is a bittersweet story meant to touch your heart. Although it uses themes such as loss and love, it doesn't cheat by being overly sentimental. It tugs at your heartstrings because it is a beauty in itself. Nicole Krauss has created a masterpiece.

Rating: 4.5/5

1 comment:

  1. I remember my moments reading this book and the tears that I've shed. Too many feels. :D