There were more or less 20 pages left in my reading of this book last December when I realized something: I have a certain tolerance when it comes to sad books and sad endings, so much so that when that threshold is breached, I get turned off. Of course, the value of the book would not be lost on me, but I would most probably let off a cynical remark in the course of my reading. “Oh, the poor soul, nothing seems to be going right.” “Oh, poor thing, it seems like everything that could possibly go wrong in this world has gone wrong for you, here’s a knife, just kill yourself and be done with it.” Things like that. I have read a lot of sad books, don't get me wrong, but there is nothing that beats The History of Love. Every word reeks of sadness, I got drowned in it.
Leo Gursky is a Polish immigrant who escaped his native country during the Holocaust. He is now living out his last days in New York, spending his twilight years dreaming about (1) the book that he wrote when he was younger – a book called The History of Love – thinking it was lost but not knowing that it was actually published; (2) his lady love Alma Meminger, for whom he wrote it and who is long dead; and (3) his child Isaac, now also a renowned writer. Day in, day out, Leo gets out of bed in a struggle, lives the day, and retires at its end, not knowing if tomorrow will usher in a new one for him, or if he will breathe his last while asleep.
Meanwhile, teenage girl Alma Singer – the namesake of Leo’s one true love – who believes her mother is still overcome by grief over the loss of her father, devises ways on how to remedy the situation. As her mother at the time was translating a work – a book called The History of Love – upon the instance of a gentleman whom she thinks might make a good match for her mother, she takes it upon herself to discover his identity.
Eventually, the lives of Leo and Alma converge at some point, and what transpires is sure to rip your heart apart.
The story moved me to near-tears, I will grant it that. Stories of lost loves will always do that to you. But what stayed with me after reading this book isn’t the lost love between Leo and Alma – yes, it still affected me some – but I was more heartbroken with the father-son non-relationship between Leo and Isaac, and how this non-relationship wrapped up. If I had to choose, that would be, for me, the ultimate tragedy among the many tragedies in this book.
I found myself unable to sympathize with Leo, in the beginning. He was eccentric and old but clearly in control of his mental faculties, and I sometimes have a problem when faced with that combination – never mind the age factor. As the story progressed, I remained in a limbo over whether I actually liked or sympathized with him, the uncertainty brought about by the fact that he chose to keep his son at a distance instead of trying to get to know him – after all, given his (very) old age, what did he have to lose? There was nothing he can do where his lady love Alma is concerned, the latter having died years before, but there was something he can do to remedy the situation with his son Isaac, who never knew his real father. In this regard, I was torn between sympathy and annoyance at Leo – I realize how much he truly loved Alma even beyond her death and sympathize with him, but I also wanted him to stop pining for someone who is no longer there, someone who’s already dead, and focus all his remaining energy instead on the living, the one who might care and, perhaps, reciprocate his love in some little way. And I wanted him to make the decision to do it before he ran out of time – after all, he knew that he didn’t have that luxury anymore. I wanted to reach out and shake him and say “Stop living in the past, Leo! Do something now!” True enough, time caught up, and here’s another token of sadness for you, dear old Leo.
On the other hand, the younger Alma came across as a quite impertinent little gal. Even when she and Leo eventually came face to face, I keep seeing Alma as a pesky teenager who was on the verge of discovering her identity and place in this world while intercepting and interfering with her mother’s mail in the process.
Eventually, though, I came to terms with their flaws and accepted that hey, they’re only humans, and they can only do so much with the hand that life has dealt them. The sadness that has cocooned Leo all those years of missing and longing for Alma would actually be the thing that has sustained him – who am I to deny him that? At the very least, I would rest assured that he loved her way back when; he will love her until the end.
Two things that totally bothered me in the narrative, which proved to be a constant source of irritation as I was reading the book:
Every time I ran into these fragments-used-as-sentences, I always get annoyed. Style-wise, I don’t dig it – they just don’t work for me. They were out of sync with the rest of the otherwise lovely narrative – even for Alma Singer’s point of view.
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.
Book Details: Trade paperback, a prize won from a friend's blog giveaway