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?)