By "reverent," we mean trying to honor someone's memory by doing something awesome yourself. This note is struck right from the book's dedication: "For My Grandparents, who taught me the opposite of disappearing." Krauss even includes a photo of each of her four grandparents, so it's not difficult to connect our fine author with her fictitious Alma, and her grandparents' love story with the tale of Leo and his beloved. This connection adds a bit of weight behind the occasional whimsy of the Alma chapters, and levity to the Leo and Litvinoff chapters. Despite the occasional moments of humor, this book is fundamentally respectful and reflective in tone. One good example of that comes with Krauss's slanting allusions to the Holocaust—never referred to directly, we receive only somber whispers and images.
Upon its publication, The History of Love was called "Jewish Magic Realism" by The New York Times. While the book might not feature such clearly magical things as a basket of invisibility (à la controversial British-Indian author Salman Rushdie's Midnight Children) or a beautiful woman floating up to heaven (One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez), it certainly shares a similar spirit with those more fantastical works, evoking the mystical and mysterious connections that unite us all.
That's not the only genre going on here, though. Magic realism is just the tip of the lit-berg (kind of like an iceberg, but with words instead of ice). We also can shelve this one under coming-of-age, since we're dealing with those oh-so-fun teen years of our protagonist, Alma. And since we're jumping around in time in the years prior to, and just after, World War II, we can slap a historical fiction label on this book as well. Now this is a book that wears a lot of hats, er, genres. It's not surprising, though, that a book about the power of, well, books would find company among multiple literary categories.
Fasten your seatbelts, Shmoopers. This about to get complicated. The book The History of Love is about a book called… The History of Love. Or how about this: the book The History of Love by Nicole Krauss is about a book called The History of Love, which is supposedly by Zvi Litvinoff but was actually written by Leo Gursky. Gursky wrote it for the love of his life, a girl named Alma, about "the only thing [he] knew" (love), and—surprise, surprise—it ended up being all about Alma also.
A few excerpts from Gursky's book are scattered throughout Krauss's novel; to a certain extent, these feel like a "history" of love, in that they describe events like the invention of emotions and the use of string for communication. Krauss's book, on the other hand, feels less like "The History of Love" and more like "A Case Study of Love." But we get it. "A Case Study of Love" doesn't make for a very good title at all. Instead, we have a book about love, about history, and about a book called The History of Love. Given all that, the title seems pretty appropriate to us.
The ending delivers that satisfying resolution the reader has been waiting for. Our two main characters finally meet, and all the big mysteries are solved. It sounds almost too neat and tidy to be true, doesn't it? It also wraps up Bird's storyline, which operates a bit outside of the central narrative up until then.
In weaving together the parallels between the two main characters' previously separate paths (the two Almas, the trips to Isaac Moritz's house), the ending introduces questions of fate, destiny, and the things that connect us to each other and to the universe. More than that, though, the ending reaffirms the power of love (no not that kind). It sustains through the years and unites folks across decades, miles, and circumstances. We're left with a heapin' helping of warm fuzzies with the final image of Alma and Leo sitting together on a park bench.
The book has some serious frequent flier mileage under its belt (note: this also includes time-machine frequent flier mileage).
Most of the action, though, takes place in Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. Although our characters are often alone, the fact that they're surrounded by millions of neighbors is difficult to ignore. The only wildlife is a pigeon on Leo's windowsill. Short jaunts into the suburbs (specifically, Long Island and Connecticut) reinforce the claustrophobia of the city. On these trips, Leo marvels at the rural surroundings: "The train left the city behind. Green fields fell away to either side […] It had been a long time since I'd been out of the city. I stood in wonder at the greenness of everything" (10.12).
Leo's flashbacks to life in Poland before and during World War II put this "concrete present" into even sharper focus. He recalls the town square, the bridge he used to jump off into the freezing river below, and "the fields where we used to play, the field in which everything was discovered and everything was possible" (1.28). In this way, the time before World War II is described as a lost paradise (maybe even a Garden of Eden) of innocence, safety, and beauty, before the horrors of war stole that security and replaced it with unspeakable suffering. It's perhaps telling that Leo spends his three years hiding from the Nazis "mostly in trees" (1.34), helping him remain at least somewhat protected by the past.
And speaking of the past, as with many books about immigrants, it's probably not much of a stretch to assume that the Old World (Europe) represents the past and the New World (the Americas) represents the future (or at least the present). But can we take this further? Specifically, what's the difference between Leo settling down in New York City and Litvinoff finding himself in Chile? One thought is that the two cities have almost precisely the same longitude, so they could be described as a mirror image of one another, or perhaps even opposites.
As we mentioned above, Leo is very firmly situated in New York City at the time of the book, and we join him in his walks around the city. With Litvinoff, however, we get quite the opposite. Although the Litvinoff scenes take place in Chile (aside from the prologue in Poland), there's little that specifically connects him to his surroundings. He works for an "old German Jew" (9.4), he listens to the radio in English, and mountains are mentioned but never arrive. He might as well be anywhere.
The multiple settings, then, provide a steady stream of contrasts: urban-rural, past-present, grounded-disconnected. That they are so divergent, yet still reconciled by the reunion at the book's end, speaks to the power of those L's (language, love, literature) to transcend time, borders, and settings.
The language in this book is accessible, expressive, contemporary English. You'll have no trouble knowing what's going on. However, the assorted Yiddish phrases may have you scrambling for your Yiddish-English Dictionary, or else heading to Wikipedia. Language confusion aside, the real "trouble" here is that the book is such a page-turner—that is, as the waves of successive revelations come, you keep flipping back to earlier portions of the book to see if what you think just happened really just happened. Phew. Don't worry, though. It's a fun exercise—totally worth it.
It shouldn't surprise you to know that, in a book like this—with such a complex, intertwining plot—the writing style is also varied and complex. Throughout this twisted History, Krauss likes to alternate chapters that are, as we'll term them: elegiac, precocious, and shadowy.
Let's start with the first type of chapter and our vocab word of the day: elegiac. Since his heart attack, Leo is both waiting for Death's inevitable embrace and adamant about squeezing out every last moment he's got left. His willingness to set his story to paper is Leo's way of balancing these competing aspects of himself—both honoring his life and preparing his legacy.
Now, for precocious: Alma's chapters are stylistically energetic and unpredictable, leaping back and forth between ideas and temperaments. Her numbered headings serve as everything from stage direction—"20. Awake in the Dark" (8.62)—to declaring minor epiphanies—"21. She Must Have Gotten Married!" (8.63).
And finally, we also have a shadowy style to contend with. Yes, Litvinoff is one shadowy fellow—not shady, as in sketchy or untrustworthy (read more on that in Zvi's character analysis), but we never really get a handle on who he is, or what he's all about. It's no accident that we don't learn Litvinoff's friend's name—let alone whatever else he's up to—until very late in the story.
Oddly enough (in case you haven't noticed it already), these different styles are directly related to the different narrators we get in The History of Love. With each new voice comes a new style, so feel free to check out the "Narrator Point of View" section if you want to read up on these distinct voices in the book.
Perhaps it goes without saying that David Singer's things symbolize—yep—David Singer. For a while after his death, his widowed wife keeps all his possessions exactly as he left them. When she finally puts them out onto the curb, she's doing so because she's really trying to coax herself into moving on with her life.
But as Alma stares out her window at the things, the image of his discarded possessions out on the curb is placed in a wider context. The leaves spin by the pile of stuff, suggesting the earth's indifference to this one individual life. And an old man sits momentarily in David's chair, which just makes us sigh yet again at the injustice of Alma's dad having died a relatively young man. Alma fishes out her dad's sweater and wears it for forty-two days straight—literally cloaking herself in his memory, the alpaca wool no substitute for her father's warm embrace.
Later, Bird cries that his mother "should have asked me before she threw away everything that belonged to Dad" (14.5). So, if his mom is trying to escape the crushing weight of grief, and his sister is clinging to the meager connection to her father that remains, Bird's protest symbolizes his having been denied the opportunity to grieve in his own way too, since he hardly knew his father at all.
Leo's decision (and let's be honest, it's a pretty bizarre decision) to pose nude for a drawing class pairs beautifully with his (ahem) exposing himself in other ways, as he begins telling us his story. And soon it's all out there—the uncertainty with how much he's supposed to reveal; discovering an embarrassing secret he quickly scrambles to hide (dirty underpants); the hesitation behind the curtain just as he's about to bare it all; the realization that no matter how he turns or shifts, there's no way of avoiding the least attractive parts of himself being seen by someone.
Alma, meanwhile, attends a drawing class not as a model but as an art student—a gift from Uncle Julian. If Leo's narrative is about exposing himself, then Alma's is about first learning how to express herself. The title of the class, "Drawing from Life," is a pun highlighting Alma's entrance into adulthood and learning from her experiences. And if we really want to dig deep on this one, the teacher's urging her to "shade" (13.3) her drawings can be read as encouragement to understand subtleties in the world around her, not just see things as black and white. We get lots of layers to consider here, courtesy of Ms. Krauss.
The imagery that's used to portray the town of Slonim is carefully selected to paint a very specific picture of the world, stolen from Leo and company. It almost seems like a lost paradise, especially when compared with New York City's urban jungle. The images represent the innocence and sheer fun of childhood—jumping from a bridge into a frigid river, running in an open field, hanging out at a parent's store, barely seeing over the countertop. The callous, anonymous cityscape of New York, then, is a fitting depiction of the traumatic experiences that have followed Leo's time in "Eden."
Leo opens doors—you know, for a living. But he also does this metaphorically for the other characters in the novel. Most obviously, his book The History of Love is responsible for bringing together two of the love stories in the novel: Alma's parents and the Litvinoffs. (Feel free to read a sexual metaphor into the connections between key and lock as well. We'll leave that one to you, though.)
The book Leo wrote also indirectly brings him into contact with the outside world, most notably with his son and with Alma Singer. So, if Leo is a locksmith, and the book allows him to open doors, then The History of Love is the literal key to The History of Love.
You will not find the word "Holocaust" in The History of Love, but the atrocities of World War II hang heavily over the novel anyway. Perhaps the most overt reference in the novel is a brief passage in which Alma considers the various "mass extinctions" throughout planetary history. She writes bluntly (in a line standing as its own separate paragraph), "I did a search on mass extinctions" (8.14), a reference to the way her search for Alma Mereminski leads her back to events in Poland sixty years prior.
In that search, though, Alma is specifically thinking about butterflies, which happen to be a symbol of the fragility of human life. (Elsewhere in the novel, Leo recalls a time when his Alma accidentally crushed a moth she held in her hands.) Alma notes that the current annihilation of species "isn't caused by natural events, but by the ignorance of human beings" (8.15).
Finally, we should mention that Krauss has actually chosen symbols for each character. The chapter titles are accompanied by a symbol corresponding to the main character in that section. Leo has a heart (like, a real heart, not a Valentine heart), Alma has a compass, Litvinoff has a book (guess which one), and Bird has an ark. You can read about what these might mean over in our "Themes" section.
Let's begin with first person, shall we? There are two different first-person narrators in The History of Love: Leo Gursky and Alma Singer.
Leo's narration—open, honest, laid bare—beautifully embodies his existence as an old man who's well past worrying about appearances. He freely admits his shortcomings and confesses his bewilderment as the mysterious events begin to unfold. Perhaps more importantly, his narration moves freely, often venturing into extended flashbacks of the most important events in his life.
Memories of the time before World War II—in Poland with his beloved—arrive so often and are presented so forcefully that it seems like he's desperately trying to keep one foot firmly planted there. These memories might be what allow him to write with such vigor and vivacity, grateful for the time he has left and for the opportunity to preserve his thoughts in writing, even if he can no longer return to them otherwise.
Contrast this with Alma Singer, whose narrative voice is every bit as confused, excited, hesitant, volatile, overwhelmed, and imaginative as we would expect a fourteen-year-old's to be. Although undeniably shaped by the turbulent events in her short life, it's clear that she's documenting her story with her future in mind. The innovative arrangement of her chapters is one great example of this focus on the future.
And now, let's turn to third-person narration to round out the bunch. It makes sense that the Zvi Litvinoff chapters are presented by a third-person narrator, since there's this Big Thing eating him up inside—he's probably not just going to tell us straight out. So, instead, we're only given access to his mind and learn his story by sort of peering over his shoulder as he moves about. There's only one exception: when Rosa discovers his secret, we momentarily step outside his point of view and view Litvinoff as his wife sees him. Tellingly, that's where their story ends—as in, the narration can't continue as it did before, now that the secret has been revealed. These narrative approaches, then, are intimately linked to the development of the characters.