Tuesday, January 25, 2011

book review: The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

The History of Love: A NovelThe backstory: The History of Love was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2002. Nicole Krauss is also one of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40.

The basics: Told in alternating narratives, The History of Love is the tale of two people: Leo, a Polish refugee living in New York who longs for his lost love, Alma and the lost novel he wrote about her, The History of Love; and another Alma, this one a teenager who was named after the Alma in the novel who is on a quest to find her namesake.

My thoughts: When I read Great House (my review) last fall and was underwhelmed with the story, many trusted friends told me I should read The History of Love because it had the same great writing with a much better story. Granted, my expectations were high because I utterly adored Krauss's writing in Great House, but I didn't love The History of Love either.

There were some beautiful passages:
There were other refugees around him experiencing the same fears and helplessness, but Litvinoff didn't find any comfort in this because there are two types of people in the world: those who prefer to be sad among others, and those who prefer to be sad alone. (p. 155)
For a novel about love, it completely lacked joy. The prose was filled with pain and longing for all the characters, and these emotions made this short novel feel heavy.

Some themes in this novel resonated with me more loudly because I read Great House first. Krauss uses many of the same themes in both novels, and this passage in particular could easily appear in either novel:
"To call him a Jewish writer," he added, "or, worse, an experimental writer, is to miss entirely the point of his humanity, which resisted all categorization." (p. 78)
It could also be what Krauss hopes for herself. She is a Jewish writer, and I would consider her an experimental one, as she uses distant time, places and objects to draw connections. The overarching focus of both novels is one of humanity and its expression through literature.

My reaction to this novel is heavily influence by my reaction to Great House. The two seemed like companion novels to me, and I'm curious if the next Nicole Krauss novel continues these themes or strike out into new territory.

Favorite passage: "There are so many ways to be alive, but only one way to be dead." (p. 232)

The verdict: Nicole Krauss is a writer I wish I liked more than I actually do. The History of Love is a meandering tale of interconnected characters whose paths cross in fascinating ways. Despite her strong writing, I still found myself enjoying the idea of this novel much more than the novel itself.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Length: 252 pages
Publication date: May 2, 2005 (it's in paperback now)
Source: gift as part of the Book Blogger Holiday Swap

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15 comments:

  1. I liked this one too when I read it about 3-4 years ago.

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  2. Oh, how disappointing! I have been hearing that this is an amazing book for years now, and am sad to hear that although the writing is beautiful, the book is a little lacking. I wonder how I would feel about it having not read Great House yet? Thanks for your honest insight on this book. I am still going to read it, but I think my expectations will be a bit more tempered.

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  3. I had a really tough time with The History of Love, and it was nearly a DNF for me. Just couldn't get into the story or much else about it. I have Great House out from the library now, but am having second thoughts after seeing some lukewarm reviews that I might just return it and allow someone else to read it. I wish I liked Nicole Krauss more than I do, too.

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  4. I haven't read any Krauss yet and and am planning to read this soon. Everyone seems to love her, but I wonder if the meandering nature of this book will put me off too?

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  5. I liked this one as well. Your review brought back nice memories for me!

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  6. I tried to read this one a few years ago (I think it was this one... did it come out awhile ago?) and couldn't get into it. But everyone RAVES about it. I think maybe, now that I'm a few years older (and wiser?) I should give it another shot.

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  7. I have this on my reading list, but have continued to have some hesitation about both it and Great House. I think your review has convinced me that I don't really care to read either novel. Thanks for such an honest review of the book -- both its beauty & its shortfalls.

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  8. I think you're the first person whose reaction I've read who read Great House before History of Love. It's very interesting to hear the comparison from the opposite direction! I really liked Krauss's writing in History of Love, but I agree that the story lacked joy. I've not yet read Great House; it sounded like I'd be disappointed, so I didn't prioritize it.

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  9. Thanks for the honest review -- I've had this one on my radar for a while but haven't gotten to it. Your observation Nicole Krauss is a writer I wish I liked more than I actually do. really resonates b/c I feel that way abt some other authors -- and I'm on the fence about HoL.

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  10. there are a couple of authors i wish i liked more, too- i know what you mean! :-)

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  11. Too bad you didn't like this as much as you were hoping for! I think I'll give it a try. It sounds like it's my kind of book.

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  12. Though it seems that you liked The History of Love a tad more than I did (I wasn't quite as thrilled by Krauss' writing skills, which are okay but a little bland for my taste). I mean, the book is pleasant. It's got some nice ideas, a rather lovely ending and a few beautifully written scenes, but I was pretty bored for the most part and didn't think that book managed to hold its own. Very interesting, well-put review.

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  13. I haven't read either book, but I've heard I should read LOVE before GREAT HOUSE. After reading your review, I think I'll do that - I'm sorry you didn't love it, since I've heard such great things.

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  14. I'm so sorry to hear this. I appreciated the complexity of Great House but wasn't impressed with it. To me, Krauss seemed to skim the surface and didn't dig deep enough into the characters and their stories for me to really care about what happened.

    I was hoping this one would be better all around. I may still read it though.

    What do you suppose is the draw then? So many love her.

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  15. I haven't read either of these books but they are on my list. In spite of the fact that you enjoyed the idea of the book more than you enjoyed the book you have intrigued me with your review.

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