The History of Love
Lots of people find precocious children obnoxious. Or annoying. Or both.
I, on the other hand, think they are positively delightful. That’s mostly because I find them hilarious (unfortunately, precocious children don’t often like it when you laugh at them . . . but it just can’t be helped).
My brother has a friend who is a manny (for those of you in my parents’ generation, “manny” is a portmanteau of male and nanny. For those of you who already knew that, please, please, please click on this link. It is just too good not to share).
The manny friend’s charge is an über-precocious three-year-old girl who lives on the Upper East Side. The manny’s Facebook status updates are often quotes from this hilarious child, and my brother will forward them to me to stoke a spell of unbridled joy. An example:
Madeline (I have given her a pseudonym . . . but rest assured that her real name is just as suitable to her precocity): Did you put that there?
Manny: No, you did. You better improve your memory or soon you’ll be forgetting my name.
Madeline: Ok, Bob Dylan, time for your snack.
I have read this about one million times, and I laugh every time. If I actually heard a three-year-old say this, I don’t know what I would do.
It probably comes as no surprise, therefore, that I tend to enjoy a book that features a precocious child. And this book features more than one.
The first is Alma Singer. She is 15 (a little old to be precocious, but precocious nonetheless). Her younger brother, Bird, (also precocious) is convinced he is “a lamed vovnik and also maybe the Messiah.”
Their father died of cancer when Alma was 7. Bird barely remembers him, so Alma tells him (mostly made-up) stories about him. Alma wants to follow in her father’s footsteps, mainly by being able to survive in the wild (her plan is to know every plant in the book Edible Plants and Flowers in North America, and, in the meantime, she has memorized the Universal Edibility Test).
Leo Gurskey, on the other hand, is really old. And lonely. In case he dies, he carries a note with him that reads: “MY NAME IS LEO GURSKY I HAVE NO FAMILY PLEASE CALL PINELAWN CEMETERY I HAVE A PLOT THERE IN THE JEWISH PART THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION.”
Leo and Alma both live in New York City. But they don’t know each other. Unbeknownst to them, their lives are connected by a novel entitled The History of Love. Alma is named after the main character in The History of Love. When a stranger writes to Alma’s mother, a translator, requesting that she translate the book into English, Alma believes this is too serendipitous to treat nonchalantly . . . so she decides to meddle, as precocious children are wont to do.
The book bounces back and forth between Leo’s and Alma’s points of view (with occasional chapters from Bird’s journal or about Zvi Litvinoff, the author of The History of Love–the book within the book). With each different point of view comes a unique voice and writing style. Leo’s is choppy, self-doubting, a little depressing. Alma writes in numbered paragraphs, lists of memories, observations. This is done successfully and helps add depth and dimension to the characters.
Rating: 3.5/5 💑
But this book was just the opposite. The beginning of the book was a little tough to get into. The connections between the characters were tenuous. The difference in writing styles between chapters was so incongruous that it was slightly jarring. I wanted it to hurry up and get somewhere. I wanted to know when, if, how, and why Alma’s and Leo’s paths would cross.
But then it really picked up speed. The end of this book FLIES. It goes between Alma’s and Leo’s perspectives page by page (Leo on one page, Alma the next, and so on). It is wrought with emotion and pretty powerful. Oh, and it made me cry.
Who should read it: Book clubbers. In fact, this is a book that a couple people in my book club recommended to me (the book club read it before I joined). The writing style, the characters, and the book’s resolution all lend themselves to good book-clubby discussion. (Tina, Linda, I’m talking to y’all!) This is also a good one for people who like precocious children (like TFA-ers, my mother . . . or my brother’s manny friend).