When Nicole Krauss’s novel The History of Love was published in 2005 it took the literary world by storm (though not like the storm that is raging outside as I write this, cozy in bed with my cat and my tea.) Everyone loved this book: The New York Times, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail. It was also the winner of the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish fiction and BMOC’s Best Literary Fiction. The book has been on my tbr shelf forever (emphasis on the ‘ever’) and so I chose it as my pick for book club.
The History of Love is the title of the book Leo Gursky wrote for the love of his life, Alma. Alma flees Poland just before the invasion of the Nazis and when Leo finally makes his way to America, he discovers that not only does he have a son, but that Alma has married someone else.
…he stood in her living room listening to all this. He was twenty-five years old. He had changed so much since he last saw her and now part of him wanted to laugh a hard, cold laugh….She said: You stopped writing. I thought you were dead. …At last he managed three words: Come with me….Three times he asked her. She shook her head. I can’t, she said. And so he did the hardest thing he had ever done in his life: he picked up his hat and walked away.
Now Leo is at the end of his life. “When they write my obituary,” he says, “it will say LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT.” Leo just wants to be seen. “Sometimes when I’m out, I’ll buy a juice even though I’m not thirsty. If the store is crowded I’ll even go so far as dropping my change all over the floor,” he says. His voice, one part resigned, one part hopeful is one of the novel’s greatest charms.
The other charming voice belongs to fifteen-year-old Alma – not the love of Leo’s life, but that of a teenager who lives in Brooklyn, with her widowed mother (who works as a translator) and younger brother, Bird. Her name is no coincidence: she was actually named after the character in Leo’s book The History of Love. This is where things get a bit complicated and I’m not going to bother drawing the chart required to understand it all – trust me, it’ll all sort itself out.
Alma is on a mission to find her mother a boyfriend. Her father died of pancreatic cancer when Alma was just seven and Alma feels as though her mother has been sad ever since. Alma is trying to navigate adolescence, her mother’s sadness, the fact that her brother thinks he’s the Messiah and her first love, too. Then (and I’m going to say it, girls!) by a weird twist of fate, The History of Love arrives for Alma’s mother to translate and the threads of Alma and Leo’s stories start to reach towards each other.
I really enjoyed The History of Love. There were some moments in the book that literally stopped me in my tracks. For example, Leo says: “All the times I have suddenly realized that my parents are dead, even now, it still surprises me, to exist in the world while that which made me has ceased to exist.” Those of us who have lost our parents will recognize that feeling (although perhaps never articulated) all too well.
This is one of those books, I think, which needs some time to sit in your belly. It is a book about connection – lovers, siblings, friends, parent and child. Leo, at the end of his life (which some might argue he wasted by loving someone he couldn’t have and not pursuing a relationship with his son) has all the insights of a person who has made errors in judgment, but is somehow still open to the world. Ultimately, The History of Love is about the desire we all have to be seen and understood and often the smallest gesture can have the biggest impact.