The History of Love. W.W. Norton & Company, 2005; 252 pages; $23.95.
FROM THE DUST JACKET: A long-lost book reappears, mysteriously connecting an old man searching for his son and a girl seeking a cure for her widowed mother's loneliness. Leo Gursky is just about surviving, tapping his radiator each evening to let his upstairs neighbor know he's still alive. But life wasn't always like this: 60 years ago, in the Polish village where he was born, Leo fell in love and wrote a book. And though Leo doesn't know it, that book survived, inspiring fabulous circumstances, even love. Fourteen-year-old Alma was named after a character in that very book. And although she has her hands full -- keeping track of her brother Bird (who thinks he might be the Messiah) and taking copious notes on How to Survive in the Wild -- she undertakes an adventure to find her namesake and save her family. With consummate, spellbinding skill, Nicole Krauss gradually draws together their stories.
This extraordinary book was inspired by the author's four grandparents and by a pantheon of authors whose work is haunted by loss -- Bruno Schulz, Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel, and more. It is truly a history of love: a tale brimming with laughter, irony, passion, and soaring imaginative power.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
Chicago Sun-Times: The History of Love is one of those spider-web books reviewers unintentionally tear to pieces in the act of clearing a path for readers. I promise to move delicately, but beware helpful explanations: No one must rob you of the chance to experience Nicole Krauss's new novel in all its beautiful confusion.
Though it's a relatively short book (some pages contain only a sentence or two), The History of Love involves several narrators and moves back and forth through the 20th Century and around the world. But that's just for starters: It contains a lost, stolen, destroyed, found, translated, and retranslated book called The History of Love, characters named for other characters, cases of plagiarism and mistaken identity, and several crucial coincidences and chance meetings that are all maddeningly scrambled in an elliptical novel that shouldn't work but does.
The New Republic: Krauss's enormous skill as a writer is enough to make one accept and admire some of the novel's more ambitious moments.
The Boston Globe: The History of Love is replete with subplots that are accomplished and intelligent: riffs on Jewish mysticism, anthropology, the transcendent power of narrative. We are privy to enough passages to realize it is an ode to love and its vast territories of misunderstanding: There were, in days past, such eras as the Age of Silence (when gestures did the job of speech) and the Age of Glass (an "evolutionary corrective" that fostered compassion). Alma the teenager escapes the mundanity and sadness of her life by poring through books like Edible Plants and Flowers in North America, keeping track of the numbers of species dying off per year, and starting her own secret narrative: How to Survive in the Wild.
Eventually Alma begins an expedition for which there is no guide, searching for the girl who inspired the character who inspired her name: the first Alma, in other words, born in some Polish village light-years away. So this Alma's path will begin to parallel that of Leo, who, through a series of craftily imposed revelations, begins to sense that all of his past is not lost after all. Like those difficult but well-oiled locks of Leo's cousin, Krauss's novel begins to slide into place, so that the last quarter of the novel has a thrilling sense of inevitability.
At a crucial point in the novel, at the end of an exquisite internal riff, Leo says, about sitting in a room alone, "Aside from myself, there was no sign of me." There are plenty of beautiful moments in The History of Love, and that's one of them.
Chicago Tribune: Taken on its own, Nicole Krauss's second novel,
At a crucial point in the novel, at the end of an exquisite internal riff, Leo says, about sitting in a room alone, "Aside from myself, there was no sign of me." There are plenty of beautiful moments in The History of Love is an altogether lovely book, a book many readers will, no doubt, wholeheartedly embrace. It has, for one thing, all the components of enduring fiction: an idiosyncratic structure, a wise and searching voice, a series of embedded incidents that read like mystery.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nicole Krauss is the author of the novel Man Walks Into a Room. Her work has appeared most recently in The New Yorker. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: Nicole Krauss and I talked, she from her home in Brooklyn and I from California. Ms. Krauss was born in 1974 in, she enthusiastically said, "New York, New York." She grew up on Long Island, in Old Westbury. She attended local public schools. "My dad was an orthopedic surgeon, although he only decided to become a doctor when I was two, so most of the time when I was growing up, for 11 years, he was in medical school and then residency. He only opened his practice when I was in high school. It was amazing to have two little kids and then decide to become a doctor. My mom, as you can imagine, through all of that, had to be first and foremost a mom."
Young Alma, in Ms. Krauss's novel, shows an extraordinary interest in science. I wondered when Ms. Krauss's interest in the subject began.
"I wonder too. In Old Westbury, when I was a kid, you could spend a lot of time outdoors. I think my interest in science had less to to do with test tubes and Bunsen burners than with the natural world. I was allowed to be alone outdoors a lot. I had collections of minerals and shells."
I mentioned that I, too, as a child collected minerals. "I think everybody who grew up in New York must have collected minerals and gone to the Museum of Natural History gift shop and bought boxes that held minerals. Did you have those boxes with the minerals from the gift shop?"