I recently re-read one of my favorite backlist titles, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss for an ARRT book discussion which I led. I am not going to talk about the discussion here, but if you are interested in some of what we discussed, Ted Balcom had this post on Book Group Buzz about our discussion.
The History of Love is a book about a book, but it is also a novel about people and their relationships with one and other. It is also a novel deeply influenced by great loss, while still managing to feel hopeful.
The most striking thing about this novel is its construction. There are four narrators, each with a distinct style. Their chapters begin with a symbol to identify who will be talking. Our narrators are Leo Gursky, an elderly Holocaust survivor and the most memorable of the bunch, Alma Singer, a 15 year old girl whose father died when she was younger, her brother Bird who thinks he may be the messiah, and a third person omniscient narrator who is telling the story of Zvi Litvinoff, the author of a novel entitled, The History of Love.
The 2 most prominent voices are Leo and Alma. Leo especially is the the heart and soul of the book. When Krauss takes over his voice, I cannot help compulsively turning the pages. His tragic story of love lost due to war, his desire to get the novel he wrote in his youth, The History of Love, back on the page, and his heartbreaking-funny desire to not be invisible is the heart of the book.
Notice I keep mentioning a book called, "The History of Love." Alma is named after its main character and her mother is engaged in a translation of the Spanish version during the novel also. It is the lynch pin that holds the story together, this novel of Leo's love for the first Alma. We even get passages from the work throughout Krauss' novel. The novel and its effect on the characters is the key reason someone will like this book (or not).
Further appeals include the book about a book plot which many readers (myself included) enjoy; the post-WWII Jewish experience, stories about writers, adolescent narrators, elderly narrators, stories about dealing with the loss of a loved one, unreliable narrator, literary fiction with a puzzle to solve, an open but resolved ending, a steady pace, a sad tone which evolves into hopefulness as the novel progresses.
Three Words That Describe This Book: alternating narrators, books about books, love
Readalikes: Krauss' husband, Jonathan Safran Foer, released a wonderful book within weeks of The History of Love. Entitled Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Foer's work is eerily similar to Krauss'. Both books have alternating narrations with a young child who has recently lost a parent and an older Holocaust survivor. They also both involved a puzzle that has to be solved by both the reader and the characters. ELaIC is one of my favorite books; in fact, I would say it has the best book ending ever.
Geraldine Brook's People of the Book is also a good choice. In this historical fiction thriller, a rare books expert is given the task to restore the Sarajevo Haggadah, an ancient Jewish text that has survived despite the many wars and conflicts that tried to destroy it. As the rare books expert works in the presnt, she uncovers clues to the past. These clues take the story into that past. Like The History of Love, it has a complex structure, a book about a book element, and a young woman with family issues.
Other books that have WWII and book about a book themes are Shadows of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron and The Book Thief by Mark Zusak. These are also popular book club suggestions.
Finally, I have two suggestions with no Jewish or WWII connection that I think are great readalike options here. The Last Samurai by Helen Dewitt follows a young British boy, who is obsessed with the film Seven Samurai, uses the lessons he has learned from the film to go on a quest to find out the identity of his father. Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott is the story of a Newton scholar who becomes obsessed with the book she is finishing. The tone is more sinister here though. I reviewed Ghostwalk here.
I will be discussing this title with my students again next month, so look for a report on our discussion then.
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