The novel opens with a somewhat neurotic author who has been writing at the desk for the past 25 years, ever since a friend of a friend asked her if she’d keep his furniture while he went home to Chile. Many years later, a young woman appears, claiming to be the daughter of the desk’s owner, and takes the desk back home to Jerusalem, leaving the author feeling lost and depressed. Meanwhile, in London, an elderly man cares for his beloved wife who has Alzheimer’s disease, and discovers a disturbing secret that she kept from him for all those years.
In another part of the world, an antiques dealer in Jerusalem slowly and painstakingly tries to recreate his father’s study from his childhood home in Budapest, before the Nazis plundered the house. His two children are brought up in a very isolated existence after their mother dies. Also in Jerusalem, an old man tries to reconnect with his estranged son, who returns from London for his mother’s funeral.
At first, these four stories seem to be unrelated to each other, but gradually, slowly, the reader begins to see threads of connection. It took me a long time to read this book; it is not a light, easy read. Krauss’ prose is dense, though often beautiful, with some paragraphs lasting a page and a half or more. It is an in-depth character study, so if you prefer fast-paced plot-driven stories, this one probably isn’t for you.
As with her earlier novel, many characters are Jewish and parts of their stories relate to the events surrounding the Holocaust. I found the overall tone of the novel to be relatively bleak; none of the characters is really happy, and the ending doesn’t bring much resolution, though there are minor hints of hope. I preferred the love story at the heart of The History of Love. Overall, I enjoyed this National Book Award finalist, and I was glad to have read it, though I generally prefer more upbeat stories.