I’ve decided that the worst thing to say about a book is that it doesn’t live up to its beginning. If out of the gate the prose is clumsy or the dialog stupid, it’s your fault for not putting it down when you had the chance. You knew better. But when a great opening draws you in, even in the face of constant disappointment it’s almost impossible to give up hope that it will get better. Even if a book is actually good, if opens as absolutely amazing it is hard not to be disappointed by your raised expectations.
The opening pages of The History of Love draw a detailed and poignant picture of the loneliness of an old man with no living relatives:
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. I’ll get down on my knees. It’s a big effort for me to get down on my knees, and an even bigger effort to get up. And yet. Maybe I look like a fool. I’ll go into the Athlete’s Foot and say, What do you have in sneakers? The clerk will look me over like the poor schmuck that I am and direct me over to the one pair of Rockports they carry, something in spanking white. … I’ll roll my pants let up and look down at those decrepit things, my feet, and an awkward minute will pass until it becomes clear that I’m waiting for him to slip the booties onto them. I never actually buy. All I want is not to die on a day when I went unseen.
This part was really, really well done. It’s hard to depict loneliness and self loathing without either making it unduly heavy or colorizing and stylizing it so much that it’s completely fake. Krauss walks the line perfectly, at least for a while.
But even here there are hints of what will go wrong. The sentence fragments “And yet” and “But” become distracting tics in the prose. The book is full of stylistic cleverness – one narrative is told in a series of short, numbered scenes, and there are often series of mostly empty one-paragraph pages – that I used to love but now seem contrived. And if the book has any fault, that is it. It is composed of four stylistically distinct narratives of people consumed by loneliness. These characters are, of course, linked in ways that to them are unexpected and deep but to me just felt imposed by the author’s heavy hand instead of evolving “naturally” through the narrative. (Note I also hated Crash for the same reason. So if you liked that, read this book without fear.)
In style and theme Krauss’s writing shares a lot with that of her husband, Jonathan Safran Foer. If you like his books (which I do), you’ll probably like this one too. But while he also does a little too much self-conscious stylistic experimentation, he just does it good enough to get away with it. She almost does, but not quite. Individually, each sentence and paragraph and scene in The History of Love is written wonderfully. But together the effect isn’t what it should be.