Friday, September 26, 2014

When Souls Collide

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss


Alma Singer is almost 15 years old. She was named after every girl in a book called "The History of Love." Alma believes that she can find the real Alma from the book. She doesn't know is who Leo Gursky is, that he was the real author of this book, that he's in New York or that he's never stopped loving Alma Mereminski, the woman he wrote about 60 years before. Leo Gursky is a survivor - he survived the Holocaust, Alma leaving for America and even finding out that the woman he loves is married to another. What Leo doesn't know is that his book, "The History of Love" also survived the trip from Poland to South America without him, was translated from Yiddish into Spanish, and although very few people read it, is now being translated into English by Alma Singer's mother.

I apologize if this plot summary is confusing, but "The History of Love" is not your conventional novel, and if I could sum this book up in one phrase, I'd call it multi-faceted. First, it is a book of parallels. Leo's adoration for Alma Mereminsky parallels Alma Singer's parents' love. Leo and Alma's separation parallels the death of Alma Singer's father. The manuscript Gursky wrote, and how it came to be published and translated without his knowledge, parallels Gursky's own life. As Alma looks for the Alma in the book, her experiences take place in parallel to Gursky's present life in New York.

This is also a book about searching. Alma Singer is searching for the real Alma Mereminski. Alma's mother is searching for the right words to translate a beloved book into English, and in the process, a way out of her depression. Alma's brother is searching for his destiny, although he's only 12 years old. Leo is searching through his memories and fantasies, while waiting for death. Finally, "The History of Love" is, of course, a book about history. We find out the history of the manuscript, the history of Leo's friend Zvi Litvinoff, who published Leo's book, the history of Alma Singer, her parents and her brother, the history of Leo Gursky's life, and even the history of Alma Mereminski in America, as well as her sons.

How Krauss achieves all this in a mere 253 pages is what makes this book so amazing. Krauss employs a first person point of view, so that we are in the minds of her characters as events are retold and unfold. Since Alma is only 14, her immature voice and wanderings of a young girl's mind, mix with her determination for her quest. Since Leo is an old man, his voice has the wisdom of age, mixed with a longing for the past and a need to be both noticed and invisible. We also get Alma's brother's voice as well, which adds another dimension in that this minor character plays an important role in the story.

With Krauss's concise style, it only takes a few strokes of the pen for us to feel immediately familiar with these characters. We know so much about their lives that we could actually become friends with them, converse with them on subjects of mutual interest. Krauss proves throughout this book that you don't need to give a blow-by-blow of a person's life, personality and looks to make your readers empathize with the characters. This combined with a narrative that sings from the page with its evocativeness, is what truly brings this book into the realm of genius. And then, with purely innocent prose she brings the story to its conclusion with such simplicity and humanity that I found myself with tears in my eyes.

As you can see, I loved this book, but admittedly, it might not appeal to everyone. Firstly, it takes a bit of getting into (about 50 pages or so), but if it interests you, please be patient, it will come. Then there is an overwhelming Jewish flavor to the story that non-Jewish people might be put off by, especially since there are terms and references they might not understand. But if you can ignore this (or revel in it, like I did), then you'll find a fascinating book that is beautifully written, marvelously modest, elegantly intelligent but never pretentious. Highly recommended to buy, beg, borrow or steal, and a full five stars out of five!

You can buy this book for your Kindle from Amazon, for your Nook from Barnes & Nobel, as an audio book from iTunes, in paperback from The Book Depository or from an IndieBound store near you.

(This is a slightly revised version of a review that originally appeared on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady.)

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