Sixty years ago, Leo Gursky wrote a book called The History of Love, and named all the female characters in it Alma, after his own true love, now lost to him. Leo thought his book was also lost, but it actually survived and was published. Now, Alma, a 15-year-old girl who was named after the character(s) in the book, seeks out the book and its author in an attempt to understand herself and her late father better. The book alternates between their two distinct voices as we see how The History of Love will bring their lives together.
This is a book about love and death and mystery, and it unfolds very slowly and deliberately. There were a few major things I was confused about for, oh, maybe the middle third of the book, to the point that I was wondering if maybe I’d missed something, but, suddenly, sharply, it was made clear. There were still some things that I found a little confusing in the end, but some thought and some online discussion cleared up some of my questions. It’s not a book that ties everything up neatly, and you really have to be paying attention. I found it hard to read small pieces of it – it was easier to read big chunks at a time than a page here and a page there. I think that I also read it too quickly, missing some important details, though it’s easier to see that in retrospect. Now that I have the story straight in my head, I will probably read through it again another time, maybe later this year.
Besides being about love and loss, this is also a book about survival. In an interview I read, Nicole Krauss talked about that, and, to be honest, the survival aspect was probably my favorite part of the book. Leo is afraid of disappearing, so he goes out in public and drops his change at the store, spills his popcorn at the movie theater, makes a mess of the milk at Starbucks, poses nude for an art class . . . all so people will see him and he won’t die unnoticed. Alma, too, is trying to figure out how to be seen. Her mother is busy with her work as a book translator, and her brother thinks he might possibly be the Messiah. She reads and rereads her Wilderness Survival Guide: Alma desperately wants to be normal, but not to be invisible. Isn’t that what we all want – for people to notice us? No matter how ordinary we are, we don’t want to die without our lives leaving a trace.
There are other elements to this story that I haven’t yet touched on – the author Zvi Litvinoff, and how he affects the lives of both Leo and Alma; Leo’s quest to know his son; and Leo’s mysterious neighbor, Bruno. These are the details that make the story, that I wish I had paid closer attention to.
Several years ago, Mike and I listened to the director commentary on Moulin Rouge, and Baz Luhrmann talked a lot about the “deal” or the “contract” that a movie and its director make with the audience. I think in this book, the same thing occurs – the reader has to buy into what the author is doing with the story, or the reader may find lines like, “Her kiss was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering,” to be too sentimental or twee for words (that idea is explored in the review I linked). I personally loved the language and story of the book, and think that, after another read, it may be an all-time favorite because of how it all comes together in the end.
This book is a prime example of why I often skip to the end of a book so that I will know what is coming. I didn’t for The History of Love, and I would have enjoyed this book a lot more if I had known what was going to happen and how it was all going to unfold. Which is why I will definitely give it another try.