“The History of Love” by Nicole Krauss
(First publication: 2005 / This edition: Penguin Books, Penguin Essentials 2015)
Taken during a lunch at Barisa. Such chill rooftop garden vibes.
If you don’t know what feels like to have someone you love put a hand below your bottom rib for the first time, what chance is there for love? (pg.187)
I saw this book floating around on social media a while ago. My initial assumption was that it’d be some kind of philosophy book. Digging further, I was kind of turned off—thinking it’d be something like a Nicholas Sparks or a puppy-love YA fiction (that I would’ve, no doubt, enjoyed when I was 12).
I forgot it for a while. Then for some reason when I went to Kinokuniya four days ago, the book popped into my mind again. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular—just wanted to browse. I was trying to remember the book and was searching on Goodreads: “The Theory of Love”, then “Love novel Nicholas”, then “The Chemistry of Love Nicholas”, and through a few more tries, I finally found what I was searching for.
I started really reading it yesterday.
And I just finished it today. Literally like, 20 minutes ago.
The first 10 minutes of that 20 minutes… I could not stop the tears running down my face.
The only other time this sort of thing happened was when I got to the end of “Lolita”, and that was already such a surprise.
(Above: During a coffee break at Siwilai cafe)
See, I was still feeling a bit reluctant when I picked this book up in Kinokuniya and read the back cover—the brief synopsis started off saying “Fourteen-year-old Alma Singer…”
Alarms were going off in my head: I do NOT want something like Meg Cabot’s “The Princess Diaries” or that book “Flipped”… as much as I loved those books when I was fourteen.
But there were a lot of detailed reviews gushing about how amazing the book is on Goodreads, so I decided to give it a shot.
And now it’s one of my top favorite books.
The first few pages had me thinking I was going to regret it though. The first character introduced had an attitude that reminded me of The Cather in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield – who I was deeply irritated by. All that negativity and trying to piss off other people, just for the sake of pissing them off.
The story has many layers and is pretty complex—kind of like Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s “The Shadow of the Wind” and Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See”, where all the loose ends come to meet at the end. I like stories like that – it gives me something to look forward to.
The novel has a few main characters and each one has “their go” at narrating the bigger story: the fourteen-year-old Alma Singer, a quirky senior Leopold Gursky, a writer Zvi, and another quirky male Bird. Overshadowing all these people’s stories is this beautiful, lovely “Alma”—who is a mystery throughout the book. The fourteen-year-old Alma is on a search to find her mother a new love and Leopold is trying to cherish memories of his lost love and his son………. and to not spoil the story for those who haven’t read it, I’m just going to stop there with the synopsis. Well, there can be no synopsis good enough for this incredible book anyway—the one of this Penguin Essentials’ back-cover even turned me off.
I feel like the vibe I get while reading was that this is like a mix of: “About a Boy” (the movie) + Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” + Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s “The Shadow of the Wind” + Patti Smith’s “Just Kids”… and oddly, how I imagine Alexa Chung would be (if I knew her personally, of course.)
Here’s pretty much my emotions throughout the book in chronological order:
1. First few pages: Oh no… this is like an old version of Holden Caulfield… I’m going to drop this after twenty more pages, I’m sure. What a waste.
2. Quarter-way through: Okay, this is actually pretty good. Beautiful writing.
3. Halfway: …….what.
4. Into the third-quarter: ………WHATTTT? What the effin’ eff is going on. Should I just drop this. Nothing is making sense. Someone please explain this to me because I think the author even lost her way and has no idea what she’s talking about anymore.
5. The last few pages: …ohmygodohmygod*tears*ohmygodohmygodohmygod I want to read this all over again right now.
Then I just let the tears flow.
Too overwhelming. It’s not about puppy-love, as I had assumed—but it covers every kind of love possible, in 252 pages. Yes, puppy-love… but also friendship love, family love, sibling love, lost love, lifetime love… the kind of love that takes over your whole life… the kind of love that is irreplaceable, as much as you want to move on… the kind of love that you know will strengthen if you do move on. It made me get existential crisis all over again, but it also makes me want to run around and hug everyone I love and tell them how much I love them (before I run out of time). Nothing cheesy though, thank god, but a lot of beautiful writing. I underlined so many lines I loved—they’re kind of like those quotes you see on top of photos on Tumblr that are “okay kind of cheesy but beautiful and I can totally relate to this”.
Anyway, needless to say, I love this book and I highly recommend it. Like I said: One of my top favorites.
Here are some of my favorite lines from the book:
Zvi had opened the book of Chinese poems he was reading a poem he said was for me. It was called “Don’t Set Sail.’ It’s very short. It begins, Don’t set sail! / Tomorrow the wind will have dropped; / And then you can go, / And I won’t trouble about you. On the morning he died there’d been a tremendous gale, a storm in the garden all night, but when I opened the window there was the clear sky. Not a drop of wind. I turned and called to him, “Darling, the wind has dropped!” And he said, “Then I can go, and you won’t trouble about me?” I thought my heart would stop. But it was true. It was just like that. (pg.188)
Maybe the first time you saw her you were ten. She was standing in the sun scratching her legs. Or tracing letters in the dirt with a stick. Her hair was being pulled. Or she was pulling someone’s hair. And a part of you was drawn to her, and a part of you resisted—wanting to ride off on your bicycle, kick a stone, remain uncomplicated. In the same breath you felt the strength of a man, and a self-pity that made you feel small and hurt. Part of you thought: Please don’t look at me. If you don’t, I can still turn away. And part of you thought: look at me. (pg.57)
Of course there are certain cases in which the boy in question refuses to stop shouting at the top of his lungs for Alma. Stages a hunger strike. Pleads. Fills a book with his love. Carries on until she has no choice but to come back. Every time she tries to leave, knowing it’s what has to be done, the boy stops her, begging like a fool. And so she always returns, no matter how often she leaves or how far she goes, appearing soundlessly behind him and covering his eyes with her hands, spoiling for him anyone who ever come after her. (pg.58)
Once Uncle Julian told me how the sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti said that sometimes just to paint a head you have to give up the whole figure. To paint a leaf, you have to sacrifice the whole landscape. It might seem like you’re limiting yourself at first, but after a while you realize that having a quarter-of-an-inch of something you have a better chance of holding on to a certain feeling of the universe than if you pretended to be doing the whole sky.
My mother did not choose a leaf or a head. She chose my father, and to hold on to a certain feeling, she sacrificed the world. (pg.46)
Holding hands, for example, is a way to remember how it feels to say nothing together. And at night, when it’s too dark to see, we find it necessary to gesture on each other’s bodies to make ourselves understood. (pg.74)
“What about you? Are you the happiest and saddest right now that you’ve ever been?”
“Of course I am.”
“Because nothing makes me happier and nothing makes me sadder than you.” (pg.91)
Sometimes I thought about nothing and sometimes I thought about my life. At least I made a living. What kind of living? A living. I lived. It wasn’t easy. And yet. I found out how little is unbearable. (pg.224)
There’s even a moment when it becomes exhilarating to realize just how little needs to stay the same for you to continue the effort they call, for lack of a better work, being human. (pg.236)