2015 Reading Challenge: The History of Love

A book by a female author:

I am terrible because I said in my previous post that this review was coming soon, and it was not soon at all. The truth is, I’ve had some difficulty penning this review down because it was definitely not going to be as comprehensive as the previous one, for a myriad of reasons, the first being that I read the book mostly on the bus to work and had to digest it in parts, instead of in one sitting the way I did The Handmaid’s Tale. And the second reason is that the book is so fundamentally different from the first one I read this year that I just didn’t know where to start.

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The History of Love is a novel published in 2005 by Nicole Krauss, whom some might know as the author married to Jonathan Safran Foer. Their writing styles are highly similar, but unfortunately I never finished Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to do a real comparison.

What I can say though is that The History of Love made me feel. A lot. For that half an hour every morning, I am deep into the world created by Krauss, and every single word made the loneliness of the characters so palpable. It happened far too often where I was so absorbed in the book that I almost miss my stop and when I get off the bus, I’ll feel a little disoriented from being snatched from the reality of the book.

Weaving two intertwined storylines together, the novel follows 80-year-old Leo Gurksy as he survives day-to-day in New York City, reminding himself with petty actions that he is alive everyday, and 15-year-old Alma, who wanted nothing more than her mother to love again after her father’s death.

Alma is named after every girl in a novel that Leo wrote for the love he had as a boy and lost due to the war. It’s a novel that Leo believed to have been lost forever, but has in truth been plagiarised by a friend and published in his name.

The interesting parallels between Leo and Alma make reading the book just like putting together a literary puzzle. Tedious at times, overzealous at times, but at the end of the day, truly rewarding.

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The book documents loneliness in all its forms and stages. Loneliness and longing, two sides of the same coin. Leo longs for his son whom he has never got to know, and Alma longs for a mother who would look at her and not see the husband she lost. And while they are longing for those things, they are both on a journey of self-discovery – of Alma discovering the roots of her name and learning who she is both in relation to and without her parents, and of Leo realising his impact as a writer and father.

The longing in the book is written well that it makes me ache – both because there is such hope contained within, but also a sense of defeat and finality. Especially with Leo’s old age, and so much death (Alma’s father, World War II, Leo’s son, Leo’s love) that happened before and in the book. The references to World War II are particularly moving, as one examines the ordinary lives of people who have survived the war, and how this history reverberates throughout the Jewish culture, gets imprinted on new generations, creates a loss in them even before they truly understand.

This notion of inheritance – of the aftermath of wars, of values, of paranoia, of lessons learnt are all important for the theme of parenting as well. In the novel, Alma’s mother was never able to truly get over the loss of Alma’s father, and therefore stopped being a parent. This is one of the saddest stories to tell – that of a child losing both parents after one parent’s death. This shapes a child most inevitably; it creates in the child a need to connect with their dead parent – not just to revive them, but their surviving parent as well. Because of this, Alma becomes obsessed with a book on how to survive in nature that her father owned, and she sees herself as finishing something her father started. For Leo, there is a certain allusion to inheritance as well, as his son becomes a writer that he never was.

Feeling is such a large part of the book, and a large part of how readers relate to the book. But Krauss was also keen to remind us that feeling is not everything. Feeling can be destructive; it can consume our whole lives.

Alma on her mother:

“She’s kept her love for him as alive as the summer they first met. In order to do this, she’s turned life away. Sometimes she subsists for days on water and air. Being the only known complex life-form to do this, she should have a species named after her. Once Uncle Julian told me how the sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti said that sometimes just to paint a head you have to give up the whole figure. To paint a leaf, you have to sacrifice the whole landscape. It might seem like you’re limiting yourself at first, but after a while you realize that having a quarter-of-an-inch of something you have a better chance of holding on to a certain feeling of the universe than if you pretended to be doing the whole sky.

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.”

I really enjoyed reading from 80-year-old Leo’s perspective, and walking a mile in the shoes of an elderly person who has lived most of his life. There is something about reading about an elderly person – there’s always a sense of looking back, of turning back. There is no longer any hope for the future, no plans. Just the past haunting the present.

But ultimately, I enjoyed reading from Alma’s perspective even more. As she reads about how to survive in the wild, she connects many things in life, especially matters of the heart, to the vastness and cruelty of nature:

“An average of seventy-four species become extinct every day, which was one good reason but not the only one to hold someone’s hand.”

“During the time I waited, a whole species of butterfly may have become extinct, or a large, complex mammal with feelings like mine.”

Follow this list for my progress on the 2015 Reading Challenge:

  1. A book you can finish in a day: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  2. A book by a female author: The History of Love by Nicole Krauss