I have a dear friend who prefers her fiction sad. That’s my interpretation, anyway. She might say she simply prefers it to be truthful or poignant or even ruefully funny. All of those are true too, I suppose, but I always start from the assumption that if I dig into something from her suggested reading list that there’s going to be a heavy dose of sadness nestled into those pages. When I first moved to North Carolina and was holed up in a house that was empty save for myself, three dogs, an air mattress and a laptop propped up on a cardboard box, she kindly recruited me into a summer book club, meeting long distance over various Gmail interfaces. The first title we read together was one she’d been looking forward to for a while: The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. I hadn’t actually heard of it or her, nor had I, at the time, read anything by her husband, Jonathan Safran Foer, so I went into it entirely without expectations, except for those engendered by the recommendation from one of the readers whose prolificness and thoughtfulness I still aspire to.
What I found in The History of Love was a writer keenly attuned to details, both those of the surroundings and of the emotional settings of the novel. Without plumbing the plot too deeply, since the prolonged sense of discovery is one the great pleasures of the novel, I’ll acknowledge that there’s a pivotal late moment on a park bench that moved me as deeply as anything I’ve ever encountered in a novel. I was taking advantage of my otherwise unwelcome solitude to redevelop my own passion as a reader, particularly a reader of novels, and The History of Love was one of the more striking experiences of that summer, admittedly in part because several of our other shared selections left each of us underwhelmed or worse.
Strangely, my resoundingly positive experience with The History of Love didn’t necessarily motivate me to quickly grab her next novel, Great House. As I recall, the critical tide had turned somewhat against the Foer-Krauss household by that time, and most of the reviews I remember reading of Great House were lukewarm (although I’m not sure how that would be the case, as I now look back at key sources and find raves). It was again my friend who steered me towards it, assuring me she’d read it and it was good. Centered on a massive desk, the book had a slightly different effect on me. I found it to be a bit of a trudge at first, but by the end, as Krauss pulled together pieces that I assumed would remain scattered, I found myself entirely drawn in, more invested in the story than I’d even realized. That, I realized, was her greatest skill: an ability to craft an engrossing narrative while making it seem unhurried, deceptively simple, even mundane. She can make the reader get lost in the story, forgetting to analyze and helplessly choosing to just experience. That’s what I need to remember when the next novel comes out. Don’t hesitate, just read.