Wednesday, July 29, 2009

BOOKS: The History of Love

What a quietly moving and thoroughly spell-binding novel Nicole Krauss has written in The History of Love. The first several chapters in, I thought the book was going to be some good character sketches, but without much of a plot. While I was enjoying the characters just being characters, I failed to notice until much later the fantastic subtle web of interconnection that had been woven around these characters, and had ensnared me to see it fully unfold. It's been said that a butterfly flapping its wings can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world. The History of Love tells of a young writer who pours out his first, fleeting yet lifelong love into an unpublished manuscript, and how it touches the lives and loves of others across two translations, three continents, and seven decades. And of how choosing the wrong sentence might change the course of a lifetime. The book made me think of Love in the Time of Cholera, as both are epic paeans to a lifetime of love (mostly in the abstract), their pivotal characters carrying an enduring unrequited love for a girl who marries and spends her life with someone else. But where Florentino Ariza spends his life whoring around, Krauss' hero Leopold Gursky spends his life writing. Gursky thinks no one will read his pages, but he has no idea how far-reaching his impact will be. In the end, he touches the lives of others more profoundly and positively than Garcia-Marquez' hero. Of course one doesn't expect much of Gursky when we first meet him, as a cranky, eccentric old man. But as his story unfolds, I grew fond of him, crankiness and eccentricities and all. His story comes out interleaved with the coming of age story of a teen girl and her younger brother dealing with the loss of their father when they were very young, and the story of a Jewish refugee and writer in South America. And perhaps the story is even more about the girl than about Gursky. While the novel jumps from 1930s Poland to 1960s Chile to contemporary New York, I found the narrative flow surprisingly natural and not too hard to follow, especially as the latent threads running through the disparate stories begin to manifest. Krauss' intricate story is brought to life by her ear for voice and her vivid characters. By the end, I was rapt in its magic web.

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