THE HISTORY OF LOVE, Nicole Krauss's second novel, is a complex story that doesn't lend itself well to being summed up in a nice, neat plot synopsis. For one thing, the book travels back and forth in time, narrated by several characters, sometimes in the form of letters, diaries, and even a novel-within-a-novel (also, not coincidentally, called THE HISTORY OF LOVE). For another thing, the book is a sort of mystery, revealing name changes, betrayals, and secret identities as the plot unfolds.
Perhaps the best way to explore THE HISTORY OF LOVE, then, is to introduce its two main characters. The first is the elderly Leopold Gursky, an almost tragically pathetic character living in a squalid apartment in New York City. Terrified that he has become invisible to the rest of the world, Leo makes a point of trying to make himself be seen every day, whether it is by purposefully spilling his coffee drink on himself at Starbucks or by volunteering to be a nude model for a life drawing course.
Originally from Poland, Leo immigrated to New York after World War II, his heart having been broken by Alma, the only girl he would ever love, and by Isaac, the son who doesn't even know he exists. Now, nearing the end of his life, Leo reflects often on the meaning of his life, on what will be left of him after he is gone. He thinks, "At the end, all that's left of you are your possessions. Perhaps that's why I've never been able to throw anything away. Perhaps that's why I hoarded the world: with the hope that when I died, the sum total of my things would suggest a life larger than the one I lived." What Leo doesn't know is that he does have a surprising legacy that may or may not keep him from being invisible forever.
Not far away from Leo Gursky, also in New York City, lives Alma Singer. Named after the heroine in her mother's favorite book, fifteen-year-old Alma wants to be a naturalist. She collects tips in notebooks she titles "How to Survive in the Wild," and she takes pains to classify her world --- and her words --- in the careful tone and style of a scientist. Alma and her younger brother Bird are both coping with the recent death of their father, as is Alma's mother, a translator who receives a surprising commission from a mysterious stranger --- to translate an obscure Spanish book titled THE HISTORY OF LOVE into English. Alma, who imposes all kinds of romantic fantasies on the stranger who communicates only by letters, starts out on a quest to find the letter writer as well as the real-life Alma who may have inspired the novel's author.
In the end, Leo and Alma come together in a surprising way --- and by means of a most unexpected catalyst. With its exploration of chance and coincidence and its multi-layered plot, Nicole Krauss's THE HISTORY OF LOVE will remind many of Paul Auster's novels and stories. Krauss's prose is remarkably versatile, skillfully using stylistic devices to differentiate the voices of her many narrators. In addition to being a genuinely well-crafted (if not exactly suspenseful) mystery story, Krauss's novel is by turns comic, mythic, thoughtful, and almost heartbreakingly sad.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 22, 2011
The History of Love