” Because of that wife who got tired of waiting for her soldier, I lived . . . Sometimes I wonder what happened to her. I like to imagine the first time she leaned in to kiss that stranger, how she must have felt herself falling for him, or perhaps simply away from her loneliness, and it’s like some tiny nothing that sets off a natural disaster halfway across the world, only this was the opposite of disaster, how by accident she saved me with that thoughtless act of grace, and she never knew, and how that, too, is part of the history of love. ” (240)
Right off the bat The History of Love reads like a mystery, but it’s also a love story, in fact, love stories all entwined together over time by chance thanks to a certain book titled The History of Love, which over the generations have by chance touched people who would never have been connected.
Fourteen-year-old Alma Singer wants to cure her mother of her loneliness years after her father died of pancreatic cancer. After several futile attempts at matchmaking, it dawns on Alma that a book her father had picked up in the window of a bookstore in Buenos Aires and gifted her mother might hold the key to her happiness. It’s no coincidence that Alma is named after the only character with a non-Spanish name in the book, written in Spanish, which her mother later translates. So the girl sets out to seek out her namesake, Alma Mereminsky.
Now that mine is almost over, I can say that the thing that struck me most about life is the capacity for change. One day you’re a person and the next day they tell you you’re a dog. At first it’s hard to bear, but after a while you learn not to look at it as a loss. 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 word, being human. (236)
In New York City, an old man named Leopold Gursky spends his days dreaming of his lost love who, sixty years ago in Poland, had inspired him to write a book. The ill-fated couple was torn apart by war but a child was born to them. Although Leopold has followed the whereabout of mother and son, and dreamed about all the ways their lives might casually intersect, he hides his love for a son who didn’t know he existed. It’s not until his son’s death that Leopold could mourn him in his house—with the hope that the sum of Issac’s belongings would suggest a life larger than the one Leopold knows.
Only now that my son was gone did I realize how much I’d been living for him. When I woke up in the morning it was because he existed, and when I ordered food it was because he existed, and when I wrote my book it was because he existed to read it. (80)
It takes a while to get a footing on the multiple back stories of The History of Love that would weave so seamlessly at the end. Alma’s research on the book that her mother so passionately translates, the mystery of the book’s authorship, Leopold’s effort to recover the manuscript so his son could read it—how the stories unfold is like digging from two ends of a tunnel, not knowing where and how they would intersect. When the series of embedded incidents do converge, the climaxes of the multiple facets come together with such an effortless click and striking coherence. Permeated in this literary novel is an affecting sense of loss and love, and disappointment in life. One man’s disappointment could be an act of grace for another. Love sustains them but the loss of it also haunts them, making them human. This book just takes my breath away.
253 pp. W. W. Norton Paperback. [Read/
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