Great House by Nicole Krauss

I fully expected to be telling you today how much I loved Great House, and how Nicole Krauss lived up to every expectation I had of her.  I wish that is the post I was writing today, but unfortunately my reaction to this novel is significantly more lukewarm than I ever imagined it would be.   There were times when I considered giving up this novel, but something about it kept me reading and I am glad I finished the novel.   Overall, I found it to be uneven, with parts I loved and parts I didn’t.

Great House is structured much like a collection of connected short stories, with several different narrators.  Three of the narrators we return to twice throughout the course of the novel and two are only allowed one section.  I think part of my own failure when it comes to this novel is where my expectations did not meet what I was given.  I was not prepared for the sudden switches in narrator and did not connect with the narrators in the first three sections.  Or, rather, as soon as I did connect with them the story switched.  I was happy to return to most of the narrators in the second part, though of course it was my favorite narrator who we did not see again.

My struggle with this review is that there are truly sections of this novel that I adored, that I want to send out into the world to be loved by other readers.  But at the same time, there are parts that I really didn’t like, that I thought were overwritten and needed editing.  This is a novel that I am so surprised that I didn’t like that I almost feel like there is something wrong with me and not the novel itself.  Surely, since so many people have loved it, I am reading it incorrectly.

So what was my problem with Great House? Why am I having such a hard time pinpointing what I did not like?  I’m even having difficulty explaining what I did like.  Well yes, I found the sections “Lies Told by Children” and the second part of “True Kindness” to be the strongest, but why?  What sets those sections apart from the other ones?

I’m asking a lot of questions here and I’m afraid that I’m not able to provide many answers, which I admit is sketchy writing at best.  Part of me thinks that Great House just isn’t anything new or memorable.  It has been a long time since I read The History of Love, and I have mostly forgotten the details, but it seems like Great House is simply a retelling of that story but instead of a missing manuscript we have a missing desk.  Am I going to remember anything about the plot of Great House in a month?  In a year?  While there were whole pages of this novel that I would like to quote, as a whole it just did not add up for me.

But the one thing that I keep going back to, that I keep trying not to talk about in this review because I’m not sure what to think about it, is the connection I see between Great House and 2666 by Roberto Bolaño.  And maybe it is because I have spent so much time with Bolaño, and maybe it is because Great House at least mentions Chilean poets, that Bolaño and Great House are permanently linked in my mind.  Beyond that, the structures of Great House and 2666 are similar, though where 2666 does not connect the stories in the end Great House does.  Now I have this unending loop in my head that Nicole Krauss is of European Jewish descent and sometimes writes about Chilean dictators and Bolaño is an exiled Chilean poet who sometimes writes about Nazis.  And what does this mean? I don’t know, but I think I like 2666 better.  That’s what this whole paragraph was about.

This is a novel that I think I could potentially have an entirely different opinion of if I read it again.  This was not the right time, which is not to absolve Great House of its flaws.   I wish there had been more consistency.  But I also think that those things would not have bothered me nearly as much any other day.  I think that all of the other pages of success, all of the other quotes that were so beautiful, would have won.  Want some examples?  Boy do I have examples:

But they didn’t come, and so I continued to sit there hour after hour watching the unrelenting rain slosh against the glass, thinking of our life together, Lotte’s and mine, how everything in it was designed to give a sense of permanence, the chair against the wall that as there when we went to sleep and there again when we awoke, the little habits that quoted from the day before and predicted the day to come, though in truth it was all just an illusion, just as solid matter is an illusion, just as our bodies are an illusion, pretending to be one thing when really they are millions upon millions of atoms coming and going, some arriving while others are leaving us forever […] (95)

The only exception was books, which I acquired freely, because I never really felt they belonged to me.  Because of this, I never felt compelled to finish those I didn’t like, or even a pressure to like them at all.  But a certain lack of responsibility also left me free to be affected.  When at last I came across the right book the feeling was violent: it blew open a hole in me that made life more dangerous because I couldn’t control what came through it. (127)

As if to touch, ritually, one last time, every enduring pocket of pain.  No, the powerful emotions of youth don’t mellow with time.  One gets a grip on them, cracks a whip, forces them down.  You build your defenses.  Insist on order.  The strength of feeling doesn’t lessen, it is simply contained. (193)

Because it hardly ends with falling in love.  Just the opposite.  I don’t need to tell you, Your Honor, I sense that you understand true loneliness.  How you fall in love and it’s there that the work begins: day after day, year after year, you must dig yourself up, exhume the contents of your mind and soul for the other to sift through so that you might be known to him, and you, too, must spend days and years wading through all that he excavates for you alone, the archaeology of his being, how exhausting it became, the digging up and the wading through, while my own work, my true work, lay waiting for me.  (208-9)

So, my conclusion?  Just read the damn thing and tell me if you agree with me or if I’m crazy.

Other, less conflicted, reviews: Shelf Love, The Broke and the Bookish, Nomadreader.  (A lot less book bloggers have read this book than I imagined!  Any reviews I missed?)


26 thoughts on “Great House by Nicole Krauss

  1. Thanks for linking to my review. I really agree with you. There were parts I adored (especially, sadly, the first part of the novel, so my expectations were high.) I loved her writing and loved parts of the story. The quality of writing kept me from skimming, but it was still a hard book to rate. Admittedly, I am not a huge fan of short stories, and I wished it were more interconnected. I would like to read it again, however, as I hold out hope a re-read would offer more layers of connection.

    1. I’m glad someone agrees with me :). I either wish it was more interconnected or less connected. I would have rather had the entire story in one section than had it divided. Some of the connections might have been less obvious then? I don’t know.

  2. Lu, I can completely understand your difficulty connecting with Great House. For me, it was both a very different novel from The History of Love, while also being an extension of it in some ways. I agree that the first portions of the novel are difficult to engage with on an emotional level, and I personally didn’t feel that this was a book about plot, but more about themes and ideas.

    One thing I really benefited from after my reading of the novel was the opportunity to talk to Krauss about the book, something I realize not everyone gets to do. But! I wrote up my interview with her at BookPage, and it may help you digest a few things about this one and what she was trying to do!

    1. I will definitely check out that interview! You’re so lucky you got to talk to Nicole Krauss! I envy your job. I agree that this book wasn’t about plot at all and more about emotions, which I think is why I would have greatly preferred if the entire story of each narrator was included in one chapter. I don’t know why this would have made me happier, but it would have haha.

  3. It’s always so disappointing when one expects to adore a book and turns out only lukewarm. That said, 2666 is a hard act to follow! It’s not many novels that hold up to that kind of comparison. I plan to check this out when it’s released in paperback based on how much I loved the first chapter (read online), but am glad to have the warning from you and a few other bloggers that I may not love the other narrators as much as I did the first one.

    1. Fortunately, the first narrator takes up a lot of the book. She just wasn’t quite my favorite. I have a feeling that you will really love most of this book. [i]2666[/i] certainly is a hard act to follow. I probably shouldn’t compare the books I read to it, but it was difficult to not see the connection between the two.

  4. I absolutely understand your problems with this, even though I adored it. I did find some sections stronger than others, which is often the case with these kinds of books, but I really did enjoy the whole thing. However, your experience with this sounds a lot like my experience with History of Love. I adored parts of it, but whenever the excerpts of the book within the book would show up, I would want to quit reading entirely.

    1. That’s very interesting! It’s been so long since I read History of Love that I can’t say one way or another how I felt about it, but it’s not really one that I want to return to to read again.

  5. I have been looking forward to this book for a long time. And now I am so sorry to read about your problems with it. I think I will follow your advise, and read it to see how I feel. But I feel I have been thoroughly warned that I might not love this as much as I expect I will.

    1. I don’t want to discourage anyone from reading this book, because I think it is a great one for discussion, about so many things. So I’m glad I didn’t discourage you!!

  6. A couple of my friends went bat crazy when this book came out and I haven’t heard much from them since then. I’m really interested in this book and like stories with multiple narrators (I loved The Imperfectionists) so I think I’ll still try this one at some point.

    1. I also like stories with multiple narrators, but I actually think it didn’t help this book. I think you would, at the very least, find a lot to think about in this novel.

  7. Hola llegue a tu blog , por medio de un comentario en el blog caravana de recuerdos , por lo que he leído en tu blog , te interesa la narrativa en español.
    Yo trabajo en una sala de lectura y me gusta intercambiar , opiniones de libros con diversas personas.

    1. Hola, leox, bienvenidos a Regular Rumination. Estoy estudiando la literatura española y latinoamericana y la lengua española para mi maestria en la filologia española/latinoamericana. En los próximos meses, cuando regreso a la escuela, aparecerán más libros en español en mi blog. Gracias por encontrar mi blog y dejar un comentario!

  8. I have yet to read anything by Nicole Krauss, but I have to say, your review is making me want to read a book of hers that has been more unambiguously embraced by the blogosphere. :p

    1. I wish I remembered better how I felt about History of Love, but that was before I was keeping track of my reading. I remember liking it! 😉

  9. Hi Lu — Great review! When I finished the novel, I initially felt much the same way. I didn’t have a chance to write the review right away — I finished reading early in the morning, and was admitted to the hospital that evening! Anyway, it took me several weeks to get the review done, and in the interim, I had some second thoughts that made me feel more positively about it. I still like The History of Love better, but I enjoyed reading Great House (as you said, a lot of the writing is just great), and came to appreciate what Krauss did with it.

    Here’s the link to my review, in case you want to read more details:

    I’m not really a book blogger — and lately I’m barely ANY kind of blogger, between being busy and my health issues — but just a book lover who blogs sometimes. I got Krauss’s book from LibraryThing, and since I *have* to review it on LT anyway, I usually cross-post the review on my blog, too.

    I enjoy your writing and your insights, keep up the good work! 🙂

    1. Thanks, Marie! It took me a long time to get my thoughts onto paper, too. I was very confused by how I felt about the novel. I’ll be visiting your blog in the future. Glad you found me 🙂

  10. I just finished this one last week and have been thinking about it a lot since closing the final pages! Definitely a memorable book and one I did enjoy, but I agree that parts were badly in need of editing. It’s as though publishers said, “Okay, Krauss is a genius — she gets free reign. Let her write whatever the hell crazy stuff she wants.”

    At least, that’s how it felt to me.

    And I adored this passage, too:

    “As if to touch, ritually, one last time, every enduring pocket of pain. No, the powerful emotions of youth don’t mellow with time. One gets a grip on them, cracks a whip, forces them down. You build your defenses. Insist on order. The strength of feeling doesn’t lessen, it is simply contained.”

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