Tuesday, November 9, 2010

book review: Great House by Nicole Krauss

Great House: A NovelThe backstory: Nicole Krauss is one of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40 and Great House is a fiction finalist for the National Book Award. (update: Great House has been longlisted shortlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize too.)

The basics: Great House is the story of several people very loosely linked by a gigantic desk with many drawers.

My thoughts: I adore the way Nicole Krauss writes. Typically when I read books in print, I opt to take notes and write down my favorite passages on paper. With this novel, I was so glad I had an ARC so I could dogear pages and underline passages. I most enjoy reading her prose slowly, and despite its complexity, it's immensely readable and has the essence of a conversation with a friend. It is conversational and aspirational. Nicole Krauss is a writer's writer:
 "I chose the freedom of long unscheduled afternoons in which nothing happens but the slightest shift in mood as captured in a semicolon." 
Great House is broken into two parts with four sections each. While I thoroughly enjoyed her writing throughout, some parts were more successful as stories for me. Overall, I expected more cohesion than I discovered. Perhaps it is unfair to compare Great House to Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad (my review), but both are novels that seem to be interconnected stories. While A Visit from the Goon Squad began feeling like stories and ended up as a cohesive novel to me, Great House began feeling like a novel and ended up feeling more like stories in the end. Jennifer Egan also writes marvelously, but the story and its construction outshined her writing.

Great House at times seemed more spurned on by language than story. While I enjoyed most of the novel as parts, I would not consider it a novel. The book certainly falls short of inconsistent, but my enjoyment of the story diminished as the book wore on. Overall, I have some mixed feelings about the work as a whole, but I also believe my enjoyment of this book would increase if I re-read it.

As I revisit my favorite passages from the beginning of the book, I find myself enchanted by their poetry:
"Sometimes I say that I felt trapped in the poems I tried to write, which is like saying one feels trapped in the universe, or trapped in the inevitability of death, but the truth of why I stopped writing poetry is not any of these, not nearly, not exactly, the truth is that if I could explain why I stopped writing poetry than I might write it again."
Great House is filled with truths that beg to be re-read:
"we take comfort in the symmetries we find in life because they suggest a design where there is none."
"We search for patterns, you see, only to find where the patterns break. And it's there, in that fissure, that we pitch our tents and wait."
Clearly, there's a lot of great in this book, and it will appeal to many readers. I imagine it would be a wonderful choice for a book club, as there are many themes and details to discuss. Lovers of plot, however, will be sorely disappointed here.

The verdict:  While I adored Krauss's writing, the story failed to resonate much with me after the first part. Recommended for fans of short stories and literary fiction, but novel lovers may find there's not enough connectedness in these interconnected stories.

Rating: 4.25 stars (out of 5)  
Length: 289 pages
Publication date: October 12, 2010
Source: I received this book for review from the publisher. Thank you!

What is more important to you: writing or story?


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13 comments:

  1. Great House s a book hat AMy mentioned on a podcast that she was looking forward to reading and she got me interested in it as well. I am a little disappointed to hear about the short story feel since I really like novels a lot more. But at the same time I am intrigued about the way you right about the writing, so I am now pretty much firmly on the fence.

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  2. Oh, I am sorry to hear that this book wasn't all that cohesive! I have been hearing and seeing buzz for it a lot during the last few weeks and have heard great things about her first book, A History of Love. Have you read that one? I have heard it's incredible. I am not sure if I want to try this one now, as short stories are not my forte. I am going to have to do a little thinking about it. Thanks for the great review, and for including the quotes!

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  3. This is a perfect review. I read this earlier this year and felt the exact same. I love her writing so much, but some of the stories just didn't work for me. That being said, it was still a wonderful read because her writing is so enchanting. I would read her descriptions of paint drying, she's that good.

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  4. I felt the same way!! I adore Nicole Krauss and this was a little bit disappointing..I mean, I really love it but HOL of was much better IMHO. I will have to read some Jennifer Egan..I've never read anything by her!

    Here's my review:

    http://brokeandbookish.blogspot.com/2010/10/jamie-takes-on-great-house-by-nicole.html

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  5. bummer! I love beautiful language but I feel that beautiful language needs plot to illuminate truth. I like them both, so that it sticks.

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  6. Well put. I love Krauss' writing too and was expecting more after the wonderful experience of reading The History of Love. I like lyrical language and will forgive lack of plot for beautiful writing any day. But something was lacking, especially toward the end. Things just didn't connect in a satisfying way. A good story but not a great one. Thanks for your thoughts on Great House.

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  7. I'm one of those people when the writing is *that* good, I'll start reading it out loud. it's unfortunate, though that overall, this was a tad disappointing. I've heard some mixed reviews from many, so it's definitely something to bear in mind the next time I'm shopping for the next book!

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  8. Great review -- I'm definitely intrigued by this book. I've never read any Krauss -- should I start with GH or something else of hers?

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  9. I do really love Krauss's writing, and the examples you've included are certainly wonderful! Too bad the novel as a whole wasn't as good.

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  10. The only book I've read by Krauss is Man Walks Into a Room. It didn't do much for me, and I've, probably unfairly, shied away from her other books.

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  11. Interesting to know. I am not the hugest fan of short stories but I really loved her first novel. I'll have to think about this one.

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  12. The book also felt like many loosely-linked short stories to me, and I struggled to find the connecting thread most of the time -- but that was part of what I liked about it! Definitely a thought-provoking, frustrating but ultimately rewarding novel.

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  13. Ooh I hope I get to enjoy it more than you did. I super love Nicole Krauss and History of Love one of my fave reads of all time. Man Walks into a Room wasn't as lovely but I guess I was biased or I just love her style so much that I adored it as well. Thanks for the honest review. At least we're all in agreement that she writes really well. :)

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Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!