Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A History of Love by Nicole Krauss

Writing a story with a central character, dealing with a universal theme and doing so in a manner that is believable to your readers is difficult.  Doing the preceding and making your story interesting to someone else is an accomplishment.  Weaving multiple primary character's lives together, exploring a wealth of emotions and ideas with subtlety and ease all without coming across as inorganic is how Nicole Krauss rolls. 

Leo Gursky is at the end of his life and he knows it.  He enjoys being out in public and making small scenes not so much as to be an ass rather he desperately wants to be noticed by the world for something--no matter how trivial--before he passes.  When not intentionally spilling coffee at Starbucks or knocking over displays in retail stores we see bits and pieces of the utterly unremarkable life he has lead.  Grusky never spends times reminiscing on his youth but nor does he revel in the twilight of his dotage. 

Alma Singer is a fifteen year old who lost her father early in her life and searches for clues and stories to reconstruct his image in any way she can; primarily through researching her parents favorite book, A History of Love of which she was named after the main character.  She also has to concurrently deal with adolescence, a younger brother who believes he is one of God's chosen, and her mother's melancholy.

The way Leo and Alma's lives interact is through A History of Love: it's author, the story's meaning, and what the narrative itself means to each of them at extreme different ages and and a wealth of different personal experiences.  It would be easy to say the plot is clever and intriguing due to constant questions raised and the reader's yearning to understand seemingly impossible character connections, and while all that is true; this is just how Krauss writes.  There is no carefully crafted mystery or intentional twist to get a knee-jerk reaction from reader; only carefully executed complexities to provide greater enjoyment on every level without ever coming close to the realm of convolution.  

As Alma's mother works on a translation of A History of Love for a patron with curious motives, great wealth and a somewhat obscure background we see how one book--long since out of print--can unify so many lives, and connect a vast host of people in addition to seeing Leo get the notice he so desperately craves (even if he is the only one who recognizes his accomplishments) and learn that all of Alma's anxieties come from her horribly sad desire to see her mother be happy.        

Loss, and filling the void, seem to be the primary theme dealt with.  Leo has lost the great love of his life and never once sought to have a relationship with anyone else.  Later in life he finds that he has fathered son and laments never one having the smallest interaction with him.  Alma, who has already lost one parent, is terrified of distance growing between herself and her mother.  While she wants to replace the role of her father in her mother's life Alma struggles with recreating (and falsifying) her father's image in her own mind so she can selfishly expound on the handful memories she has of her father.  If I told you the story was beautiful, hilarious and heartbreaking all at once I'd understand hesitancy to believe me... 

The characters are beautifully brought to life.  Leo feels like a real old man while Alma is a vivid and comical teenage girl.  Considering the disparity of age in characters and their handles on life a real accomplishment is lack of sentimentality as to not obscure the story.  The narrative is anything but cold, but perhaps endearing from a distance.  I told myself at the outset of writing this commentary that I wouldn't mention Great House, Krauss' third novel that was nominated for the National Book of the Year award in 2012, but I can't help myself...  As well crafted as Leo and Alma's voices are, I miss the controlling, dominate, presence of the author's voice as in Great House.  I'm also aware that I couldn't voice this tiny qualm had I read the books in the order in which they were written.  I'm not sure if I can call the narrative style from A History of Love to Great House 'progress' as both as so well done, but rest assured: no matter the voice Krauss adopts you'll love every word. 

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