Reviewed by Amy Gruzesky
When you start reading The History of Love by author Nicole Krauss, the main character, Leo Gursky, will break your heart. In short order you will learn he is an old man, living alone, basically waiting to die, but he does not want to die on a day when he hasn’t been seen by someone. So he goes about his days doing things to ensure someone sees him–buying juice even though he’s not thirsty and then dropping his change on the floor, going to the movies and buying popcorn and spilling it onto the floor to make a scene–all because he doesn’t want to leave this life without being noticed by someone.
Then, through snippets of backstory interwoven into Leo’s present day story, you learn that as a young man he had been madly in love with a young girl who lived in the same village as him in Poland and had written three books, until the holocaust took it all away in very short order.
Leo finds his way to New York, where he ends up working with his cousin, a locksmith. Eventually, he decides to go look for Alma, his long lost love, who he knows is also living in the same city.
Unbeknownst to Leo, when Alma’s family sent her to America at the start of the holocaust, she was pregnant with his child. But believing Leo to be dead because his letters stopped coming to her, she marries her boss’s son and starts a family and new life with him.
Leo does find her, but now with two young children, a husband, and a different life, she can’t go with Leo, even as he begs her to do so before he finally accepts her decision and leaves. Instead, he opts to keep tabs on his son, who is named Isaac. Eventually Isaac becomes the writer Leo could have, and should have, become.
Then there is 14-year-old Alma, whose mother, a lonely widow, has been hired by the mysterious Jacob Marcus to translate a book, “The History of Love” from Spanish into English. The book has a character named Alma in it. The character is, in fact, her daughter Alma’s namesake, her father having given the Spanish version to her mother many years before.
The modern-day Alma, driven by a desire to possibly unite her mother with the man who hired her to translate the book, sets out to find out more about the book, its writer, and the characters within it. This quest makes Alma the tie that binds so to speak, as it is through her and her drive to find answers that these characters and their stories come together.
In this work, Krauss has written a truly beautiful story of love, loss, and loneliness and what it means to be human. Thankfully throughout the story she also interjects some humor, which helps the reader bear some of the truly sad scenes and stories that are revealed.
The History of Love is a powerful and moving story you will not soon forget, and if you’re like me, it is one you will probably find yourself pondering long after turning the last page.