Study Guide

The History of Love Quotes

  • Love

    Twenty-five percent of my heart muscle died. (1.9)

    So one could say that Leo literally has a broken heart—poor guy.

    Their love was a secret they told no one. He promised her he would never love another girl as long as he lived. What if I die? she asked. Even then, he said. (1.32)

    Does it go without saying that the girl would like Leo to make this promise? Why does she not make the promise as well?

    She'd stroke my hair and say, "I love you so much," and when I sneezed I'd say, "Bless you, you know how much I love you, don't you?" and when I got up for a tissue she'd say, "Let me get it for you I love you so much," [...] and I always wanted to say, but never said: Love me less. (2.17)

    Alma makes the argument that love can be a form of oppression. We're pretty sure there's nothing about this in Leo's version of The History of Love.

    When I was little my mother used to get a certain look in her eyes and say, "One day you're going to fall in love." I wanted to say, but never said: Not in a million years. (2.46)

    Alma and her mother have taken away very different lessons from Alma's father. Alma's mother holds dear the memory of their falling in love and their time together. Alma, though, can only see how his death has destroyed her mother.

    She learned back and looked at him with something like hurt, and then he almost but didn't say the two sentences he'd been meaning to say for years: Part of me is made of glass, and also, I love you. (2.71)

    Falling in love means exposing our fragile selves to someone else, and having to trust them to not break our hearts (and assorted other breakable body parts).

    I thought we were fighting for something more than her love, he said.

    Now it was my turn to look out the window.

    What is more than her love? I asked. (7.99-101)

    Is this a rhetorical question, or is Leo hoping to find something else to fill the hollowness within himself?

    And that's when he saw them. They were standing about ten yards away. Gursky was leaning against a fence, and Alma was leaning against him. Litvinoff watched as Gursky took her face in his hands. She paused, and then lifted her face to meet his. And as Litvinoff watched them kiss, he felt that everything that belonged to him was worthless. (12.5)

    This episode is a nice outside perspective on the magic that existed between Leo and his Alma. But it carries greater weight in light of what comes later. Leo writes The History of Love in honor of his muse, and Litvinoff plagiarizes his words and calls them his own as a way of effectively stealing this moment as well.

    Angels don't get married. To begin with they are too busy, and secondly they don't fall in love with each other. (If you don't know what it feels like to have someone you love put a hand below your bottom rib for the first time, what chance is there for love?) [...] This is not to say they don't feel love, because they do; sometimes they feel it so strongly that they think they're having a panic attack. (12.17)

    The History of Love introduces the element of physicality into the discussion of love. How does this description of angels' love compare to the love of plain old human beings?

    The night before Litvinoff died, as the rain pounded on the roof and coursed through the gutters, he'd called out to Rosa. She'd been washing the dishes, and hurried to him. "What is it, darling?" she asked, putting her hand on his forehead. He coughed so hard she thought he was going to spit up blood. When it passed, he said, "There's something I want to tell you." She waited, listening. "I—" he began, but the cough returned, sending him into convulsions. "Shh," Rosa said, covering his lips with her fingers. "Don't speak." Litvinoff took her hand and squeezed it. "I need to," he said, and for once his body complied and was quiet. [...] "I wanted you to love me," he whispered. Rosa looked at him. He seemed to her, just then, like the child they never had. "And I did love you," she said. (12.23)

    Here Litvinoff professes his love as an excuse (imagine) for having plagiarized The History of Love—which Rosa knows he did, even though he doesn't know that she knows. With that in mind, how do we take her use of the past tense, saying she did love him? Is she saying that because he's dying, or because she hasn't loved him since she found out the truth about the book?

    Really there isn't much to say.

    He was a great writer.

    He fell in love.

    It was his life. (Epilogue)

    What is the "it" in this passage, taken from Leo's auto-obituary?

  • Loneliness

    The recovery room turned silent; everyone stared. Bruno groaned and turned toward the wall. That night I put him to bed. Bruno, I said. So sorry, he said. So selfish. I sighed and turned to go. Stay with me! he cried. (1.12)

    Ambivalence between loneliness and companionship can be seen all throughout the novel. This is an especially interesting example: Bruno tries to commit suicide, and Leo saves him. Bruno apologizes for having been willing to leave his friend alone in the world. Then when Leo goes to leave him alone in the hospital, Bruno can't bear the solitude.


    The way that literature affects human relationships is a recurring theme. But here literature is a literal wall separating Alma's mother from the people around her. The more she immerses herself in that world, the more she's cut off.

    The next table over there was a girl with blue hair leaning over a notebook and chewing on a ballpoint pen, and at the table next to her was a little boy in a soccer uniform sitting with his mother [...]. A wave of happiness came over me. It felt giddy to be part of it all. To be drinking a cup of coffee like a normal person. (4.5)

    It's worth noting that Leo has very little in common with the people surrounding him—the blue hair, the young child. And because Leo so rarely has any contact whatsoever with other people, the simple act of drinking a cup of coffee together here is a profound experience for him. He feels united with other folks and experiences the joy of being alive.

    The moment had passed, the door between the lives we could have led and the lives we led had shut in our faces. Or better to say, in my face. Grammar of my life: as a rule of thumb, wherever there appears a plural, correct for singular. (4.53)

    But after all this time, why would the impulse to pluralize even remain? What does that say about the human instinct for companionship?

    I live alone, which doesn't bother me. Or maybe just a little. (5.17)

    No, how much, really? And why does he want us to think that living alone doesn't bother him at all?

    I left the library. Crossing the street, I was hit head-on by a brutal loneliness. I felt dark and hollow. Abandoned, unnoticed, forgotten. I stood on the sidewalk a nothing, a gathering of dust. (7.62)

    Once again, books and literature serve as a replacement for human companionship. Leaving the library, and the warm embrace of those millions of words, Leo realizes just how alone he is. The irony, of course, is that he lives in downtown Manhattan, where he's literally surrounded by millions of real human beings.

    She asked me to make a copy of her key. I was happy for her. That she wouldn't be alone anymore. It's not that I felt sorry for myself. [...] And yet. I made two copies. One I gave to her, and one I kept. For a long time I carried it in my pocket. To pretend. (7.64)

    This is really sad, right? We definitely pity him at this moment. But we have two questions here. One: do you think that's why he's admitting this to us? And two: how do you think the woman would feel if she knew he had made an extra copy of her key and carried it around with him every day? Would she feel sympathetic like us, or be totally creeped out? Those are two legit options.

    In my loneliness it comforts me to think that the world's doors, however closed, are never truly locked to me. (7.73)

    Think about the two instances in the novel where Leo uses his skills to sneak into a building. One is the empty, almost abandoned home of the son he never had the nerve to meet. The other is Carnegie Hall—a vast cathedral of empty seats, suggestive of all the people he might be surrounding himself with, but steadfastly avoids.

    He didn't make any friends. He was no longer in the business of making friends. [...] There were other refugees around him experiencing the same fears and helplessness, but Litvinoff didn't find any comfort in this because there are two types of people in the world: those who prefer to be sad among others, and those who prefer to be sad alone. (9.9)

    This passage seems to assume that the only people with whom Leo might communicate or associate would be other survivors of the Holocaust who experienced similar terrible things and could relate to his suffering. It also suggests that, for this group of people, being sad—either alone or in a group—is the only option. Being happy is out of the picture. Does that sound right to you?

    When Alma was gone, and, two years later, Mordecai, there had been nothing anymore to stop me. And yet. (10.15)

    Meeting his son has got to be number one on Leo's all-time wish list. Why does he find himself unable to introduce himself and tell him the truth, then?

    BEING ALONE. Like the living, angels sometimes get tired of each other and want to be alone. Because the houses they live in are crowded, and there's nowhere to go, the only thing an angel can do at such moments is shut his eyes and put his head down on his arms. (12.15)

    Does this remind of you of anything? Are any of the people in our story similar to these angels? Doesn't this image of putting one's head in one's arms resemble putting one's nose in a book?

    "Yes, I do. I have plenty of friends," I said, and only as the words came out did I realize they weren't true. (13.22)

    How could it be that Alma doesn't realize this? Or, rather, does it seem like that to you as a reader? Or does her immersion in the imagined worlds of Alma Mereminski and Zvi Litvinoff and Jacob Marcus make it seem as though she's surrounded by people all the time? Yes, we do like asking questions, thank you for asking.

    I wanted to be like them. And yet. I didn't know how. I'd always felt different from the others, and the difference hurt. (16.49)

    Leo is remembering how he felt as a child. How does he change as he gets older? Does he still feel different from others? If so, does feeling different still hurt like it did when he was a kid?

  • Identity

    I try to make a point of being seen. 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. [...] All I want is not to die on a day when I went unseen. (1.3)

    Leo has been traumatized by the death of a neighbor whose body wasn't found for days. But is his willingness to sacrifice his dignity justified by that fear alone?

    Once upon a time a man who had become invisible arrived in America. (1.33)

    What does this say about the immigrant experience in America, and how America offers the possibility of a fresh start? Are we supposed to assume he becomes visible again upon arrival, or that he stays totally invisible?

    After all, what does it mean for a man to hide one more thing when he has vanished completely? (1.36)

    Isn't it interesting how this sentence implies the existence of other people—people to hide things from, and people to hide oneself from?

    I found my way to the tropical greenhouse. It was another world inside, wet and warm, like the breath of people making love had been trapped there. With my finger I wrote on the glass LEO GURSKY. (1.87)

    As Leo tells us elsewhere, "It had been a long time since I'd been with a woman" (7.63). Here, by writing his name onto a scene he's associated with sex and romance, he's trying to identify himself with that sort of human connection.

    Afterwards, I found myself standing in line, my hands shaking as I pressed into his the scrap of paper on which I'd written my name. He glanced at it and copied it into a book. [...] "TO LEON GURSKY," it said (1.95-96).

    This one's brutal: it's the one time Leo meets his son face-to-face. He actually hands him a piece of paper with his name on it, but Isaac misreads it and writes down the wrong name! Nothing could better symbolize what a stranger Leo is to him.

    But my brother refused to answer to it. When people asked him his name, he made something up. He went through fifteen or twenty names. For a month he referred to himself in the third person as Mr. Fruit. On his sixth birthday he took a running leap out of a second-floor window and tried to fly. He broke his arm and got a scar on his forehead, but from then on nobody ever called him anything but Bird. (2.1)

    This seems to be a pretty clear search for identity. What's special about the name he eventually settles on? Does it make sense that Bird is finally named after something he has done, rather than being named after a bunch of dead guys?

    Almost everything known about Zvi Litvinoff comes from the introduction his wife wrote in the volume of The History of Love, reissued a few years after he died. (3.1)

    Leo and Alma announce their respective arrivals by personally introducing themselves by name, firmly basing their existence in fact and owning their identities. With Litvinoff, on the other hand, not only is his story introduced in the third-person, but we're told that everything we know about him comes second-hand, and post-mortem.

    There was a shop on Lexington that advertised passport pictures. I like to go sometimes. I keep them in a little album. Mostly they're of me, except for one, which is of Isaac, aged five, and another of my cousin, the locksmith. He was an amateur photographer and one day he showed me how to make a pinhole camera. This was the spring of 1947. I stood in the back of his tiny shop watching him fix the photographic paper inside the box. He told me to sit, and shone a lamp on my face. Then he removed the cover over the pinhole. I sat so still I was hardly breathing. When it was finished we went into the darkroom and dropped it in the developing pan. We waited. Nothing. Where I should have been there was only a scratchy grayness. My cousin insisted we do it again, so we did it again, and again, nothing. Three times he tried to take a picture of me with the pinhole camera, and three times I failed to appear. My cousin couldn't understand it. He cursed the man who sold him the paper, thinking he'd been given a bad batch. But I knew he hadn't. I knew the way others had lost a leg or an arm, I'd lost whatever the thing is that makes people indelible. I told my cousin to sit in the chair. He was reluctant, but finally he agreed. I took a photograph of him and as we watched the paper in the developing pan his face appeared. He laughed. And I laughed, too. It was I who'd taken the picture, and if it was proof of his existence, it was also proof of my own. He let me keep it. Whenever I took it out of my wallet and looked at him, I knew I was really looking at me. (4.40)

    Wow, this is a big one. Um, so Leo doesn't exist? But he makes other people exist? And that makes him feel like he exists too? That's the gist of this story, a pretty stunning revelation that seems, ever after, to color the way Leo sees himself in the world.

    "Then again, you could always just stick with half English and half Israeli, since—" "I'M AMERICAN!" I shouted. My mother blinked. [...] From the corner of the room where he was looking at the pictures in a magazine, Bird muttered, "No, you're not. You're Jewish." (5.4)

    Alma's mother runs through sixteen different ways for Alma to define herself ethnically. But Alma dismisses all these, instead considering herself simply American. And Bird, of course, thinks that all these labels are negated by the fact that she comes from a Jewish family. What does this say about each of their personalities?

    I didn't know how to say that even though I'd started out looking for someone who could make my mother happy again, now I was looking for something else, too. About the woman I was named after. And about me. (8.25)

    So is Alma really looking for herself? What do you think?

    My book was nowhere to be found. Aside from myself, there was no sign of me. (10.44)

    Does Leo consider his book to be more "real" than his corporeal body?

  • Death

    When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say, LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT. I'm surprised I haven't been buried alive. (1.1)

    These short sentences, the very first in the novel, introduce a number of competing aspects of Leo's personality—not just his fixation with death, but also his ambivalent relationship with material possessions, viewing them both as a marker of personal worth and also an all-too-weighty burden.

    In the years that followed, the boy became a man who became invisible. In this way, he escaped death. (1.32)

    How does this relate to Leo's obsession with not dying on a day when he's not seen by another person? If he escaped death through invisibility, then why is he so interested in his continued visibility?

    Ach, listen! It hit me how good it is to be alive. Alive! And I wanted to tell you. Do you understand what I'm saying? I'm saying life is a thing of beauty, Bruno. A thing of beauty and a joy forever. (4.13)

    It's only through an experience of human companionship that Leo has this profound realization. Naturally, he can't fully experience it without sharing it with someone he loves.

    Suddenly I was filled with regret that I'd bought my own plot so prematurely. If I'd known, I could have joined him. Tomorrow. Or the next day. I'd been afraid of being left to the dogs. [...] My son's mother, the girl I fell in love with when I was ten, died five years ago. I expect to join her soon. Tomorrow. Or the next day. Of that I am convinced. (4.51-53)

    It is ironic that Leo is so intent on being united with his son after death, since he has avoided all communication with him while alive. But the reunion with his wife he sees as his big reward for a lifetime of patience and fortitude.

    He didn't leave the office until midnight, but as he walked home through the cold night he smiled to himself believing the obituary was one of his finest. So often the material he had to work with was thin and paltry, and he had to patch something together with a few superlatives, clichés, and false notes of glory in order to commemorate the life, and bolster a sense of loss over the death. (6.21)

    In writing this obituary, and gracefully honoring the achievements of Isaac Babel's life, Litvinoff is effectively writing his own obituary, in which Babel's will be a highlight.

    In the days after my heart attack and before I began to write again, all I could think about was dying. [...] I imagined all the ways I could go. Blood clot to the brain. Infarction. Thrombosis. Pneumonia. Grand mal obstruction to the vena cava. I saw myself foaming at the mouth, writhing on the floor. I'd wake up in the night, gripping my throat. And yet. No matter how often I imagined the possible failure of my organs, I found the consequence inconceivable. That it could happen to me. I forced myself to picture the last moments. The penultimate breath. A final sigh. And yet. It was always followed by another. (7.48)

    Leo's obsession with dying almost becomes a meditation on death, as practiced by some ascetics and monastics—the idea being that, by constantly thinking about one's inevitable death, he or she will be able to fully experience every waking moment. But what does it say about Leo that he is unable to imagine anything on the other side of that "final sigh"?

    I remember the first time I understood what it was to die. I was nine. [...] The faucet had a leak, and with every drip I felt my life ebbing away. One day it would be all gone. The joy of being alive became so concentrated in me I wanted to scream. (7.49-50)

    Is this as unexpected as it may seem, that a growing sense of mortality would make someone overwhelmingly grateful to be alive?

    That, in a nutshell, was the end of my preoccupation with death. Not that I stopped fearing it. I just stopped thinking about it. (7.60)

    Is it possible to fear something without thinking about it? What would that look like, or feel like?

    At the end, all that's left of you are your possessions. Perhaps that's why I've never been able to throw anything away. Perhaps that's why I hoarded the world: with the hope that, when I died, the sum total of my things would suggest a life larger than the one I lived. (10.29)

    Compare this sentiment to how humiliated Litvinoff feels when he sees that Gursky's obituary is much better than his own, before realizing that "A person's death belongs to no one but the one who's died" (6.28). What's with his preoccupation with possessions? How can death itself be a possession too?

    Why do people always get named after dead people? If they have to be named after anything at all, why can't it be things, which have more permanence, like the sky or the sea, or even ideas, which never really die, not even bad ones? (11.19)

    Alma's experience with death is solely with the deaths of people she loves—her father, in particular—so she's pretty resentful toward impermanence.

  • Grief

    A couple of years after his wife died. It was too much to love in the apartment without her, everything reminded him, so when an apartment opened up in the floor above me he moved in. (1.10)

    As we eventually learn, Leo's friend Bruno died in 1941, and now exists only in Leo's mind. How can we interpret his creation of a personal history for Bruno—including wife, apartment, cake baking, etc.?

    At first my mother kept everything exactly as he left it. [...] Then one day I came home from school and every obvious sign of him was gone. The closets were cleared of his clothes, his shoes were gone from by the door, and out in the street, next to a pile of garbage bags, stood his old chair. I went up to my bedroom and watched it through the window. The wind sent leaves cartwheeling past it on the sidewalk. An old man passed by and sat in it. I went on and fished his sweater out of the trash bin. (2.14)

    In its simplest terms, this episode symbolizes Alma's mother's attempt to move on from her initial period of grieving and Alma's unwillingness to abandon her dad to memory. For more on this, check out "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory."

    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. (2.23-24)

    Uncle Julian argues that grief does not necessarily have to be a debilitating force—or at least that grieving can be seen in a positive light. Do you think that Alma agrees with this idea? Do you agree?

    There were three mirrors. I was exposed to parts of myself I hadn't seen in years. Despite my grief, I took a moment to examine them. (4.38)

    Although grief might normally (as in the case of Alma's mother) cause someone to neglect the superficial world of appearances, Leo is forced to observe his age and consider his own impending death.

    I took a drink, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand, repeating the gesture that was made a hundred times by my father and his father and his father's father, eyes half closed as the sharpness of the alcohol replaced the sharpness of grief. (4.47)

    It remains ambiguous whether Leo is remembering his ancestor's taste for alcohol, or feeling connected to them through the understanding that each of them had to cope with grief about their own family members at some point.

    I went upstairs. With every door and cabinet and drawer I opened, I learned something new about Isaac, and with each new thing I learned, his absence became more real, and the more real, the more impossible to believe. (10.31)

    Leo hopes to console himself by connecting more deeply to the son he never knew. But the greater intimacy only makes him grieve more.

    I lost the only woman I ever wanted to love. I lost years. I lost books. I lost the house where I was born. And I lost Isaac. (10.43)

    Leo presents these things as a simple list, but in fact each item and how he lost them were profoundly different. This just highlights the conflicted psychology with which Leo has emerged from his turbulent (to say the least) youth.

    After Uncle Julian left, my mother became more withdrawn, or maybe a better word would be obscure, as in faint, unclear, distant. Empty teacups gathered around her, and dictionary pages fell at her feet. She abandoned the garden, and the mums and asters that had trusted her to see them through to the first frost hung their waterlogged heads. Letters came from publishers asking if she'd be interested in translating this or that book. These went unanswered. The only phone calls she accepted were from Uncle Julian, and whenever she spoke to him, she closed the door. (13.1)

    As readers, we don't know so much about Uncle Julian, but what we do know tells us that he's sort of unhinged. Why would Alma's mother choose him as a confidante rather than someone who's a little more stable? Side note: it isn't difficult to read the image of the neglected flowers as representing Alma and her brother Bird. But we'll play Captain Obvious anyway.

    Every year, the memories I have of my father become more faint, unclear, and distant. Once they were vivid and true, then they became like photographs, and now they are more like photographs of photographs. But sometimes, at rare moments, a memory of him will return to me with such suddenness and clarity that all the feeling I've pushed down for years springs out like a jack-in-the-box. At these moments, I wonder if this is the way it feels to be my mother. (13.2)

    The reader initially feels Alma's sadness about the fact that her memories of her father are fading. But the correlation with her mother's grief suggests that the impermanence of memories might just be a blessing.

    The only person I really miss is Dad. Sometimes I get jealous of Alma because she knew Dad more than I did and can remember so much about him. But the weird thing is that when I read Volume 2 of her notebook last year it said, I FEEL SAD BECAUSE I NEVER REALLY KNEW DAD. (16.6)

    It's ironic that Bird feels jealous of Alma's memories of their father, since in reality Alma has been making up facts and memories about their father in order to help Bird feel closer to him. Now he has a glimpse of the truth.

  • Literature-Writing

    When I was a boy I liked to write. It was the only thing I wanted to with my life. (1.14)

    Leo laments—with a note of bitterness—in these lines, as circumstances prevented from him from living his dream.

    I started again. This time I didn't write about real things and I didn't write about imaginary things. I wrote about the only thing I knew. The pages piled up. (1.15)

    Leo suggests that his beloved occupies a place between the real and the imaginary—and that she's the only thing he really knows. What do you think he means by this? How can he not know about all the things that are real? More to the point, why is she not real herself? And why is she so much easier to write about than normal real stuff?

    At times I believed that the last page of my book and the last page of my life were one and the same, that when my book ended I'd end, a great wind would sweep though my rooms carrying the pages away, and when the air cleared of all those fluttering white sheets the room would be silent, the chair were I sat would be empty. (1.24)

    From this statement, one might expect the book to be a memoir or an autobiography that encapsulates Leo's life. But, as far as the reader knows, it's not. What does this say about his self-conception? Or the value he places on being able to express himself in writing?

    She wrote to my father in Israel almost every day on expensive French stationary, and when she ran out of that she wrote to him on graph paper torn out of a notebook. (2.10)

    How does this symbolize the course of many long-distance relationships? And how is this one different?

    She spent a lot of time in the Bodleian Library reading hundreds of books and not making any friends. (2.10)

    As we mentioned in the "Loneliness" theme section, there's a distinct connection between a love of literature and a life of solitude.

    She started to work again. She roamed the house in a kimono printed with red flowers, and wherever she went a trail of crumpled pages followed. Before Dad died, she used to be neater. But now if you wanted to find her all you had to do was follow the pages of crossed-out words, and at the end of the trail she'd be there. (2.18)

    The "crumpled pages" are interesting. It's almost as if, by discarding these precious words, she's encouraged to emerge from her lonely cocoon.

    I started to keep a notebook called How to Survive in the Wild. (2.22)

    Only a true bibliophile would prepare for an eventual exodus from the world of books by, yes, keeping a notebook of what she may find in the world beyond.


    Many of Alma's relationships are epistolary (that is, conducted via letter-writing)—for example, her Russian pen pals, Jacob Marcus, and the readers of this book. Here, she finds a connection to her father by writing him a letter too, although she adds at the end, "I'm writing this but I know that you can't read it" (5.6).

    A bitter joke came to mind. Words failed me. And yet. I clutched the pages, afraid my mind was playing tricks on me, that I would look down and find them blank. (7.3)

    Leo exposes how reliant he is on words, despite spending decades away from writing. They are, in effect, his most prized possession—or maybe not so much the words themselves, but his capacity to put them on the page.

    6. Did they like it? (7.24)

    Why does Leo cross this out? Is it because he doesn't want to feel like he wants approval? Do you buy it?

  • Family

    My mother is lonely even when we're around here, 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. (2.35)

    Alma imagines that her mother's grief will render her incapable of living alone. And she thinks that her father's early death will make her lose the chance at living her own life.

    I didn't think it would be so painful. And yet. To hear people talk about the son I'd only been able to imagine as if he were as familiar to them as a relative was almost too much to bear. (4.97)

    Leo can't truly grieve for Isaac, since he never really knew his son. Instead he grieves for himself, and for the relationship they never had.

    I used to fantasize about disasters, floods, earthquakes, the world thrown into chaos so that I'd have a reason to go to him and sweep him up under my coat. When I'd given up my hope of extenuating circumstances I started to dream about our being thrown together by chance. (10.15)

    Leo imagines himself as a strong father figure, bravely protecting his son. He hopes for devastating disasters that might finally allow him to do so. But he's incapable of mustering the courage to become a father on his own.

    What would I have said to him, my only child? Forgive me, your mother didn't love me the way I wanted to be loved; perhaps I didn't love her the way she needed, either? (10.20)

    Is Leo just being generous? Or could he really have done something differently to bring about some other ending with his beloved?

    And then I thought: Perhaps that is what it means to be a father—to teach your child to live without you. If so, no one was a greater father than I. (10.22)

    There is no way that Leo really believes this. What kind of father do you think he would have been, had he been given the chance?

    "You shouldn't have to always be polite with your family." "Why not?" "It would be better if people just said what they meant." (11.3)

    This relatively benign interaction betrays just how different Alma's and her mother's ideas are about their relationship: Alma wants normalcy and lightheartedness; her mother wants intimacy and profundity. Don't forget, Ma—Alma is still just a girl.

    "Come give me a hug," she said, so I did, even though I didn't feel like it. "How did you get so tall?" I shrugged, hoping she wouldn't go on. "I'm going to the library," I told her, which was a lie, but by the way she was looking at me I knew she hadn't really heard, since it wasn't me she saw. (11.6)

    Alma is clearly suggesting that her mother is using her as a surrogate for her father. That she is dishonest with her mother twice (giving her a meaningless hug and then lying about the library) without her mom even noticing is evidence of that myopia (a big, fun word for shortsightedness).

    She turned to look at me over her shoulder. "Dad used to love to garden," she said, as if I'd never known him at all. (11.25)

    Once again, Alma is offended by her mother's blindness and insensitivity toward Alma's own processing of grief over her father's death.


    Alma provides a list of memories from both her mother and her father. They both hail from distant, unknown lands—England and Israel, respectively, and also South America and Europe. This just reinforces Alma's isolation from her family, both historically and emotionally.

    Then Dr. Vishnubakat said Can I ask you a question and I sad Depends and he said Do you miss your father and I said I don't really remember him, and he said I think it would be very hard to lose your father, and I didn't say anything. If you want to know why I didn't say anything it's because I don't like it when anyone talks about Dad unless they knew him. (14.8)

    Again, each character has a unique way of dealing with grief. Little does Bird know that Alma—whom he turns to for the scoop on their father—didn't actually know him nearly as much as she suggests.

  • Language and Communication

    We often sit together at my kitchen table. The whole afternoon might go by without our saying a word. If we do talk, we never speak in Yiddish. The words of our childhood became strangers to us—we couldn't use them in the same way and so we chose not to use them at all. Life demanded a new language. (1.10)

    What begins as a statement of preference for silence ends with a statement about the inability to speak. What has so separated the men from their youth that they can no longer speak Yiddish?

    The reason she had to learn to read it was because it was written in Spanish. [...] During the second week of term, she bought a used bicycle and rode around tacking up posters that said WANTED: HEBREW TUTOR, because languages came easily to her, and she wanted to be able to understand my father. [...] My mother was also teaching herself Spanish out of a book called Teach Yourself Spanish. (2.10)

    Alma describes her parents as having already fallen in love, although they can't yet "understand" each other.

    Sometimes pages of the dictionaries come loose and gather at her feet. [...] When I was little, I thought that the pages on the floor were words she would never be able to use again, and I tried to tape them back in where they belonged, out of fear that one day she would be left silent. (2.25)

    Isn't this a crazy idea? Do you think this stems from Alma's fixation with words, her mother's, or some combination of the two?

    [...] at the table next to her was a little boy in a soccer uniform sitting with his mother who told him, The plural of elf is elves. A wave of happiness came over me. It felt giddy to be part of it all. To be drinking a cup of coffee like a normal person. I wanted to shout out: The plural of elf is elves! What a language! What a world! (4.6)

    Leo's consciousness is so closely tied to written expression that his epiphany about the miracle of human existence, of course, ends up having a linguistic basis.

    Tatiana's English wasn't very good, and often I couldn't understand her letters. But I waited for them eagerly. (5.3)

    Alma is so desperate for friendship that actually being able to communicate with said friend is really not so important to her.


    Alma chalks up the awkwardness between Misha and her to sheer linguistics. If only she didn't speak such perfect English, everything would be so much easier. This may or may not be totally bogus, gang.

    So many words get lost. They leave the mouth and lose their courage, wandering aimlessly until they are swept into the gutter like dead leaves. [...]

    There was a time when it wasn't uncommon to use a piece of string to guide words that otherwise might falter on the way to their destinations. (6.4, 6.5, 6.8)

    This passage considers the possibility of language having volition, an agenda of its own. How does this change our understanding of human interaction?

    It took me a moment. And then I realized the difference. He was speaking to me in Yiddish. (7.82)

    Considering what Leo has previously told us about him and Bruno never speaking Yiddish, this can be read either as a sign of their coming together or drifting apart. (This gets even more complicated in light of the fact that Bruno doesn't really, you know, exist.)

    It took seven languages to make me; it would be nice if I could have spoken just once. But I couldn't, so he leaned down and kissed me. (8.27)

    Here "the language of love," so to speak, is used as a substitute for the language of words. That is, if Alma had been able to speak, then kissing would not have been an option. Does this mean the two are incompatible?

    On the other side of the wall, Misha's mother shouted something at his father. […] His father started to shout back at his mother. "What are they fighting about?" I asked. Misha pulled his head back. A thought crossed his face in a language I couldn't understand. I wondered if things were going to change between us. "Merde," he said. "What does that mean?" I asked, and he said, "It's French." He tucked a strand of my hair around my ear, and started to kiss me again. [...] "Don't," I said, and sat up. (8.28)

    Let's set the scene: the teenagers are making out, and the parents are arguing in another room in a language the girl can't understand. Then the boy saying something in a language she can't understand, and she decides it's time to go. But what's up with the thought crossing his face in a language she can't understand? There are all kinds of miscommunication (or bad communication) happening in this little exchange, and language is at the heart of all of it.

  • Religion

    She named my brother Emanuel Chaim after the Jewish historian Emanuel Ringelblum, who buried milk cans filled with testimony in the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Jewish cellist Emanuel Feuermann, who was one of the great musical prodigies of the twentieth century, and also the Jewish writer of genius Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel, and her uncle Chaim, who was a joker, a real clown, made everyone laugh like crazy, and who died by the Nazis. But my brother refused to answer to it. When people asked him his name, he made something up. (2.1)

    If Bird is so religious, why would he want to distance himself from this lineage of great Jewish men with whom he shares his name?


    By immediately announcing Bird's religious beliefs, Alma passively declares her own atheism.

    When I was him from the window, I regret having taught him to sound out the Hebrew letters when he was only five. It makes me sad, knowing it can't last. (2.6)

    Why should Alma assume Bird's religiousness is only a temporary phase?

    "I'M AMERICAN!" I shouted. My mother blinked. [...] From the corner of the room where he was looking at the pictures in a magazine, Bird muttered, "No, you're not. You're Jewish." (5.4)

    Is she, though? Is Bird referring to Jewishness as a religious or a cultural affiliation?

    Once my father told me: When a Jew prays, he is asking God a question that has no end. (10.40)

    Leo's faithlessness is indicative of his reluctance to take on any more unanswerable questions.

    The more sadness he sees, the more his heart begins to turn against God. [...] When he asks God why He's made him so useless, the angel's voice cracks trying to hold back angry tears. Eventually he stops talking to God altogether. (1.94)

    This description of one of Isaac Moritz's stories can be seen as one of the novel's indirect allusions to the Holocaust. Having seen inconceivable human suffering, Leo (and others) lost faith in God.

    And because the angel is drunk and lonely and angry with God, and because, without his even knowing it, he feels the urge, familiar among humans, to confide in someone, he tells the man the truth: that he's an angel. The man doesn't believe him, but the angel insists. The man asks him to prove it, and so the angel lifts his shirt despite the cold and shoes the man the perfect circle on his chest, which is the mark of an angel. But that means nothing to the man, who doesn't know from the mark of angels, so he says, Show me something God can do, and the angel, naïve like all angels, points to the man. And because the man thinks he's lying, he punches the angel in the stomach, sending him tottering backwards off the pier and plunging into the dark river. Where he drowns, because one thing about angels is that they can't swim. (1.94)

    Since the "perfect circle on the angel's chest" is such an arbitrary symbol, we can wonder whether similar brands might be found on us all. It's through rejecting the Divine within us all that we are truly lost and alone.

    Imagine the burden of keeping silent when your child asks you if God exists. (6.26)

    In this excerpt from one of Gursky's obituaries, it goes without saying that one must keep silent because clearly God doesn't exist.

    The rabbi told me that if I wanted I could write a note to God and add it to the cracks. I didn't believe in God, so I wrote to my father instead. (5.8)

    There's a lot going on here. One thing is that Alma effectively replaces God with her absent biological father. Another important piece is that her use of the past tense ("I didn't believe in God") leaves open the possibility that she did not believe in God at the time, but now (while writing this book) she does.

    I told Misha everything. About how my father had died, and my mother's loneliness, and Bird's unshakable belief in God. (5.12)

    This interesting choice of word—"unshakable"—suggests that Alma has indeed attempted to shake it out of him.

    I did not know where Grand Street was but I'm almost 12 and I knew I would find it. (16.33)

    Bird is the only character with any certainty—especially about looking for things. This stems directly from his great faith.

  • The Home

    The place isn't big. I have to struggle to keep a path clear between bed and toilet, toilet and kitchen table, kitchen table and front door. (1.1)

    Leo's cluttered apartment is a potent symbol of the cluttered nature of his mind—both filled with things from his past that he cannot discard.

    They lived in a sunny house covered with bougainvillea in Ramat Gan. My father planted an olive tree and a lemon tree in the garden, and dug a little trench around each for water to collect. (2.11)

    Usually people plant trees when they're planning on sticking around a place for a while, right? But Alma's parents leave, like, right after planting these trees. Who is her father planting them for, then? For the next tenants? Or for the sake of the trees themselves?

    She didn't like America, but she didn't hate it, either. Two and a half years and eight gazillion books later, she had Bird. Then we moved to Brooklyn. (2.12)

    Alma doesn't elaborate on her mother's feelings about America. So what are we supposed to think about her tepid feelings about it? Also, does this passage suggest that Bird is a stabilizing influence on the family?

    "Where are you planning to sleep, the Arctic Circle?" she asked. I thought, There or maybe the Peruvian Andes, since that's where Dad once camped. [...] I started to keep a notebook called How to Survive in the Wild. (2.21-22)

    Juxtaposing these thoughts—along with Alma's interest in her father's tent—places her interest in the wilderness not solely as a way to escape her mother's smothering tendencies, but to connect with her father. Seen in this light, Alma's wilderness isn't wilderness at all, but yet another hypothetical home.

    The fact that she stayed home all day in her pajamas translating books by mostly dead people didn't seem to help matters much. (2.28)

    Charlotte Singer's disinterest in meeting new people is epitomized by the fact that she never even leaves the familiarity of her home.

    It must have taken another few weeks for my mother's reply to arrive in Venice, and by then Jacob Marcus had most likely gone, leaving instructions for his mail to be forwarded. In the beginning, I pictured him as very tall and thin with a chronic cough, speaking the few words of Italian he knew with a terrible accent, one of those sad people who are never at home anywhere. (2.57)

    Does Alma imagine Jacob "never at home anywhere" as a reaction to her mother never leaving the house? Or does this image suggest something more fundamental about his character?

    He carries nothing. Or at least he appears to carry nothing, not an umbrella even though it looks like rain, or a briefcase though it's rush hour, and around him, stopped against the wind, people are making their way home to their warm houses at the edge of the city where their children lean over their homework at the kitchen table, the smell of dinner in the air, and probably a dog, because there is always a dog in such houses. (2.67)

    Although this one's an excerpt from The History of Love, it's not difficult to imagine this describing Leo in downtown Manhattan—he has nothing, yet all around him is everything.

    From then on, I took an even greater pride in my work. I'd bring the most difficult locks home and time myself. Then I'd cut the time in half and practice until I got there. I'd keep at it until I couldn't feel my fingers. (7.66)

    This is a rather potent image of the emptiness of Leo's emotional life, and how he uses his work to fill the void in his home that might otherwise be filled with family, pets, writing, and so on.

    He learned to live with the truth. Not to accept it, but to live with it. It was like living with an elephant. His room was tiny, and every morning he had to squeeze around the truth just to get to the bathroom. To reach the armoire to get a pair of underpants he had to crawl under the truth, praying it wouldn't choose that moment to sit on his face. At night, when he closed his eyes, he felt it looming above him. (9.11)

    When we leave the house, we put on armor to face the world. At home, we take off our shoes, our coat, our hat—and let our guard down. This leaves Litvinoff armorless, defenseless against a flood of painful memories and realities. (Also: how does Litvinoff's crawling around his apartment remind you of the opening paragraph of the book?)

    I half expected someone to be home. As far as I knew, Isaac had lived by himself. But you never know. (10.19)

    Leo's image of his son is, in many ways, of a man utterly different from himself. So he can't help but imagine that, in contrast to his own loneliness, Isaac would share his home with someone else. The line "you never know" reminds us of the privacy that only the home provides.