Parallel Lives

Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, May 1, 2005


By Nicole Krauss

Norton. 252 pp. $23.95

T he History of Love is one of those spider-web books that 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. The New Yorker ran an excerpt last year that was funny and touching but gave little sense of the whole novel's complexity. Though it's a relatively short book (some pages contain only a sentence or two), The History of Lov e 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.

Leo Gursky, a retired locksmith in New York, opens the story with an irresistible monologue about the anxieties of old age. "I often wonder," he says, "who will be the last person to see me alive." For 60 years being seen and staying alive have been his primary concerns. When he was a boy in Poland, invisibility was the only way to escape the Nazis, but now, as an old man with a damaged heart, being seen is a defiant act of survival.

"I try to make a point of being seen," he says. "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, the nickels and dimes skidding in every direction. I'll get down on my knees. It's a big effort for me."

We meet Leo as he's contemplating answering an ad for a nude model. Krauss takes a risk by tottering along with this old-man shtick, but she portrays him with such tenderness that his story is at least as heartbreaking as it is hilarious. We learn that Leo lost his family and friends in the war, that he escaped to America and that he fell into a career as a locksmith that closed the door on his plans to be a writer.

He's spent 60 years pining for the love of his life and watching from afar the son he could never acknowledge. Now, nearing what he's sure must be imminent death, he fights for attention and tries to keep an old friend in the apartment above him from committing suicide.

Elsewhere in New York, a young teenage girl named Alma describes her fractured family in a series of numbered journal entries. Her father died when she was 7, and the loss has thrown her into a program of ardent survivalism: studying how to make tea from acorns, start a fire with her knife, and set up a tent in three minutes. For her younger brother, nicknamed Bird, their father's death has inspired a Messiah complex that leads him to build an ark and jump off buildings. She does her best to keep an eye on him and prod him into normalcy, but frankly, she's not cut out for the job, being pretty eccentric herself.

And besides, she's preoccupied with her mother, a translator who has only had two dates since her husband died. "She's kept her love for him as alive as the summer they first met," Alma writes. "In order to do this, she's turned life away. . . . My mother is lonely even when we're around her, but sometimes my stomach hurts when I think about what will happen to her when I grow up and go away to start the rest of my life. Other times I imagine I'll never be able to leave at all."

Alma's plan to save her mom (and herself) revolves around a strange book written in Spanish, called "The History of Love," by a Polish writer who escaped to Chile in 1941. Alma's parents named her after the woman in the book, and she becomes convinced that the cure for her mother's loneliness can be found by unraveling its mysteries and tracking down the characters in New York City.

(Is it peevish to note the extremely loud and incredibly close similarities between elements of this book and the new novel by Krauss's husband, Jonathan Safran Foer? -- the weirdly precocious child following obscure clues around New York in search of information about a dead father, the flashbacks to Nazi atrocities, the key/lock motif, the pages with just a few words on them. As someone who enjoyed both novels immensely, I didn't find these similarities annoying, but they do raise interesting questions about the symbiosis between these two wildly inventive authors. PhD candidates, start your engines!)

For much of the novel, the stories of young Alma and old Leo seem to run in different orbits, but the obscure Spanish book provides a haunting, if vague, connection between them. Krauss has rather daringly created a number of excerpts supposedly from the book, which she laces into the narrative as Alma's mother renders them into English: strange, sometimes comic legends, anecdotes of courtship and devotion, and surreal reflections on romance. If you're one of those impatient readers who always skip the quotations, make an exception for these passages because they sound like a cross between Isaac Bashevis Singer and Gabriel García Márquez. In a chapter called "The Age of Silence," for instance, we learn that once "no distinction was made between the gestures of language and the gestures of life." A chapter called "Love Among the Angels" claims that "even among the angels, there is the sadness of division." How easy it would have been for Krauss to write about this odd little book without actually creating passages from it to justify the tangled affections that grow up around it. Even in moments of startling peculiarity, she touches the most common elements of the heart. For Leo, obsessed with his death but struggling to be noticed, and for Alma, ready to grow up but arrested by her mother's grief, the persistence of love drives them to an astonishing connection. In the final pages, the fractured stories of The History of Love fall together like a desperate embrace. ·

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company