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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Love, regret, recrimination and responsibility in Siri Hustvedt’s New York: What I Loved

Now for something completely different. Siri Hustvedt’s third novel, which has been on my TBR pile for too long, is not so much a story, as a revelation in three acts. It is intelligent, mature and surprising. The story is told by the aging art historian Leo Hertzberg. Leo has unexpectedly found love and marriage in middle age. He is a thoughtful witness to events and recalls for the reader long hidden and half obscured memories. Leo’s new wife is the younger writer Erica and together they move in the unforgiving world of the New York art scene. The opening events of the book see Leo purchasing a painting of an unknown woman by an unknown artist. He seeks out and becomes firm friends with that artist; Bill Wechsler. Bill is married to the laconic and morbid poet Lucille. The model in the painting is the vivid sexual Violet. These five characters will be connected for life, by love and geography and circumstance and memory. The two couples have children born only weeks apart, and those two boys, Matthew and Mark become the second generation of this avant garde family. But this is no family saga, the reader must prepare to be challenged and disturbed.

The book has three distinct phases that might be entitled “love”, “grief” and “thrill”. The three phases are broken up by two untimely deaths. In both cases, the reader is told of the deaths unsentimentally. The first phase of the novel is about love and the establishment of ideas. It has the flavour and feeling of an introduction, with just enough mystery to keep the reader hanging on. The second section of What I Loved is a candid and incisive rendering of grief. Just when the reader begins to think that they understand the meaning of the book, it turns, in its third incarnation, into an unstoppable psycho thriller. Hustvedt’s writing is beautifully paced and perfectly sustained throughout. However, this is no conventional novel and the reader cannot expect every loose end to be tied up and every mystery resolved. For the most part events will be explained, but there are dark mysteries of character, explored in the novel and no light will be thrown upon them for the reader. There is just enough information for the reader to formulate an idea of the characters, but never so much that we are beyond doubt in our analysis. We must content ourselves that there are some corners of the human soul that we can never comprehend.

Every character in the novel is one of an artist, an academic, an art critic or a child. Between them, there is an obscene amount of navel gazing and self analysis. The characters, even the children, appear to spend so much time assessing the significance of their own thoughts that it is a wonder that they ever produce any of the various paintings and books that they are working on. They are peculiarly unproductive people and their world is at best rarefied and at worst faddish; it is unquestionably indulgent. Leo, as an art historian, slowly going blind is the embodiment of this powerlessness. The idea that he, as a blind critic, cannot take on anything new, but can only recall past scenes is also a crucial theme developed by the author. We begin to see Leo as cursed by age and experience rather than informed by it. It is Leo who pronounces “use had nothing to do with art. It [art] was by nature useless”. However in What I Loved, art is not useless, it is the lens through which all of our characters see each other and understand themselves. The author uses art to illuminate the artist and the object. Sometimes her long descriptions of art, which the reader cannot see, can feel laboured, but generally they are successful. Art is the conduit for several of the tensions which pepper the book; the tension between seeing and blindness and between knowing and ignorance. Painting, sculpture and arrangement can also be secret languages, only known to the intended and impossible for outsiders to understand. For all of our characters, having a family will be the ultimate creative act; and certainly their most frustrating one.

Art is also a symbol for the themes of substitution and transformation in the novel. The characters, who are for the most part, not related to each other, take on family roles and slip into the identities left vacant by their deceased loved ones. In some cases characters seem to do this willingly, and in other cases their behaviour is dictated for them by events. Identity, gender, body and mind are fluid concepts, and our characters move between them with the passing of lives and the desertion of parents and lovers. Even Leo’s love, for his son, wife and neighbours contorts throughout out the years. However, he never loses the ability to love, despite the dreadful losses and betrayals that befall him.

The book boasts a small but well drawn support cast of characters, weaving in and out of the story and helping to populate the bitchy and fickle art scene that the main characters know. This does not quite amount to the “Dickensian” quality that has been described by some critics; it is not broad ranging enough. What I Loved is a story of individuals, not a picture of a city. Other than the character of Leo’s son Matt who is rather unconvincing, all of the protagonists have been carefully put together, just like one of Bill’s works of art. Every word reads as though it has been thought over again and again. There is a restrained care evident in the prose that adds to its power.

The characters are professional thinkers, but they can still misunderstand those nearest to them. Illness and degeneration can exist right under their noses, and they only seem to see it when it reaches its ghastly conclusion. In its final third the novel becomes an extraordinary race through a terrifying underworld populated by drug-addled desperados, anorexic self-harmers and people for whom art and violence are the same thing. The reader is asked to suspect posing posturing publicity seeking shock artists of the darkest crimes. Leo is intelligent but he seems unfitted for the thrilling climax written out for him. It is a chase across New York and across America, a chase for love and for understanding; a battle against evil and a fight to recapture what Leo loves, or what he thinks he loves. The most remarkable aspect of What I Loved is that it is totally candid. The loves, losses, erotica and betrayals of the characters are told without romance and without sentimentality. Love and death are routine and inescapable. Leo informs us that his parents were “Jewish Germans” prior to 1933 and that “that phrase that no longer exists in any language”. The fate of his family in the holocaust hangs heavy in his mind, and right from the beginning, the reader has a sense of Leo as a man bound tightly to tragedy. He understands how horror can forge a community. By the end of What I Loved the characters will be both bound together and lost to one another by their shared memories.


  1. Hannah, what a fabulous review. This book has been on my shelves for a few years but I still haven't read it. Your review does make me want to move it up on my list now --so a big thanks to you.

  2. Diane - thanks so much for your kind comment. This book was given to me by a friend and I took a little while to read it too - but it is definately a worthwhile read.



  3. Hanah

    Thanks for this review. This is the one Hustvedt book I have not yet read. I love her writing. I particularly love her non-fiction essays, but her 'Sorrows of an American' is also superb, as is the one you have reviewed here by the sound of things. You write such terrific reviews.

  4. I wasn't really inclined to read this book, but now I think I must. Your review is amazing!

  5. Hannah,
    I can honestly say that is one of the best book reviews I have ever read! Wow!!!
    Do you write? I mean seriously, for publication? I have not looked at your complete profile so I'm not sure yet, but have you been to school for writing? Are you writing a book? You are truly amazing.
    A blog I am so happy to have stumbled upon...or actually so happy you found me so I could in return find you....thank you! I feel blessed.
    I will definitely add this book to my TBR pile now. I had never heard of it before, but you have me intrigued. Please keep your reviews coming - you're a gem.

  6. Hi Stacy - thank you so much for your comment - I am so touched by the things that you have written!
    I do write seriously and am currently working on a book which I hope some day will be accepted by a publisher. It is at a very early stage in the drafting process and right now I am looking for an agent - so I am just starting out and that means that I especially appreciate your comments...
    thanks so much for visiting!

  7. What a beautiful review. Definitely intrigues me and piques my interest. I've not read any of her books- I just know her as Paul Auster's wife so I'd be interested to read her work and get to know it apart from the association with Auster.

  8. Hannah -- Thanks for the note about ladybugs on my blog. It sounds like your situation is worse than mine, so I guess I won't be sending mine over to France. On the other hand, if we trade, maybe they'll try to get home again and drown in the Atlantic.
    I don't know how I missed your blog before. It is beautiful and wonderful and interesting and thoughtful and ... Well, I look forward to following it regularly.

  9. I've been meaning to leave a comment, but you know how that is: good intentions, lazy person.

    Official comment: Your blog is a work of art, including your reviews. While I may not read the books, I'm satisfied reading your detailed reviews of them.

    And for some odd reason, Stoneham sounds more Jane Austen than French.

  10. Marie - thanks so much for your comment. I knew that she is married to Paul Auster - but - big confession time - I have never read any of his work... I think I will look it up and have a go. Enjoy your reading.

    Teri K - thanks for visiting and commenting - and good luck with your ladybirds!

    Charlie - thanks so much for your kind words - I am touched! Stoneham is very english - as am I - but I have the great fortune to be living in France at the moment.

    Hope that everyone is having a good mothering Sunday!


  11. Thank you for another great review, Hannah. I came across this title a year ago (or maybe the year before) when another blogger mentioned that the author was a favorite of hers. I bought a copy of this book around that time, but confess that I haven't yet read it. You've reminded me of why I want to. This sounds like such an interesting book.

  12. I've enjoyed reading your recent reviews. This one is of particular interest since this book is inching up my TBR pile and I will likely read it for "Orange July". This is one of the more thorough and thought-provoking reviews I've read, which makes me really look forward to the book!

  13. What an incisive review. I began _What I loved_ a month ago but couldn't bring myself to continue through the agonizing and disturbing 2nd act. I skipped ahead to see whether the final act of the book would be worth continuing for, and found myself in the midst of the psycho-thriller action, at which point I decided that it wasn't the right book for me. I needed something a little more uplifting at the time.

    But I agree that Hustvedt is an extraordinarily good writer, unsentimental and strong in the way she evokes the complexities and mysteries of these characters. I would also say you're a pretty darn talented writer. Thanks for posting this great review!