A note: It has been, let’s see, about two weeks since I read this. My impressions are still fresh, but the initial fist-clenching-heart feeling has dissipated a little. It’s a good book, at least I think so. That is, I really loved this book — it just resonates. It’s quite an experience during the reading, one that leaves you both exhausted and satisfied; so many questions too, most of them introspective. [No, I will not call upon a metaphor here.] This is only my second book by the author — her first novel, The Blindfold [click for review], was my first read of hers – but she’s quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. So. Here it is:
In Siri Hustvedt’s third novel, an art historian going blind, Leo has taken upon himself the duty of family chronicler, detailing more than two decades of the intertwined lives of two families in 1980s New York City. Anchored on art and the intricacies of domestic life plus the more sinister side of artsy literati, What I Loved is a dense and richly detailed novel about love and loss, the menace of lies, and the many forms betrayal takes.
Every story we tell about ourselves can only be told in the past tense. It winds backward from where we now stand, no longer the actors in the story, but its spectators who have chosen to speak. The trail behind us is sometimes marked by stones like the ones Hansel first left behind him. Other times, the path is gone, because the birds flew down and ate up all the crumbs at sunrise. The story flies over the blanks, filling them in with the hypotaxis of an “and” or an “and then.” I’ve done it in these pages to stay on a path I know is interrupted by shallow pits and several deep holes. Writing is a way to trace my hunger, and hunger is nothing if not a void.
The blind [so to speak] storyteller, Leo notes that chroniclers are “no longer the actors in the story, but its spectators who have chosen to speak.” And true, for most of the novel, one gets the impression that Leo has taken an almost passive role in his tale. By speaking about the events that have wreaked the lives of at least five people, Leo more than often steps back, not only in his very recalling, but in the events he narrates. Is it in his nature, or is he simply surrounded by such manically passionate people? — Bill Weschler he describes as, “heavy with life. So often it’s lightness we admire.” Anyhoo, this is Leo, temperate Leo, quietly earnest Leo. And it’s funny how who seems to be the most reliable person in this group gets to be chosen as chronicler. And, knowing that he’s recounting this years after the event, it’s kind of, well, it’s kind of lonely.
Oh, yeah, the action. First. Intrigued by a painting, Leo tracks down the artist. That’s how he meets Bill Weschler, and later his wife Lucille. There’s a genuine affection and fondness between Leo and Bill, and it’s the friendship between these two that draws their families together — later, we find Bill and Lucille moving into the apartment above Leo and Erica’s. Later, they have sons, Matthew and Mark, and their lives are just as tightly wound as ever.
There are, of course, disruptions. Violet is the most major one — model for a series of Bill’s paintings, in fact the subject of the painting Bill just bought — and later on, eventually, it’s Bill and Violet who end up together. And whereas Lucille is just a little too cold, just a little too measured, Violet and Bill together, they were just right, just truly in love:
They were beautiful, those two, and my mind is still crammed with memories of their bodies from the early days of their love affair. . . I think the tension they created together was what I liked best I always felt that there was an invisible wire between them, stretched nearly to its breaking point.
Okay. So. Where was I? What I’ve recounted is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I’ve yet to share how alive the art talk within these pages are, “dated” as they may be. How stunning Hustvedt’s descriptions are — the attention to details, so fine, so keen, but never overwhelming: Here, the quiver on a lower lip deciding the future between two people, a calculatedness in the way people talk hint at dissent. It’s the same kind of minuscule details in Bill Weschler’s work: a shoe, a child, a gaze, a bruise, a shadow.
This novel is so complex, many-layered. Each character gets fleshed out in full, which of course means revelations leaves us many more questions. Violet, for several years, is writing a book on hysteria — a disease so horrifying, so peculiar, so horrifying in how peculiar and specific it could be — and this permeates Bill’s art, and people’s interactions with one another. The themes are varied and as complex, all able to leech into this cast of characters — I tried, and I am sure I failed, to make a list: Parallels and mirror lives; Hunger, eating; Memory; Lucille, when people haunt us; Love, loss, lies; Chronicles; Complex relationships; Intricacies, entanglement.
This novel is the shiz, dammit. Aherm. It’s just so rich and just a little disturbing. It has that sinister-ness that I noticed while I was reading Hustvedt’s first novel. It leaves you so much to think about, and a lot of things you want to run away from: You’re invested in these characters, and their pains are yours, their confusions are yours. And so it is with dread when you examine an event along with our narrator Leo; the way he described Mark’s life as “an archaeology of fictions,” you have to agree, and you do so reluctantly, because you’re as scared as him.
Lies are always double: what you say coexists with what you didn’t say but might have said. When you stop lying, the gap between your words and inner belief closes, and you continue on a path of trying to match your spoken words to the language of your thoughts, at least those fit for other peoples’ consumption.
I was exhausted by the time I finished reading this book. It puts you through the wringer. It’s part-saga, part-artistic treatise, part-psychological thriller. And Hustvedt sustains a gripping narrative and the most fluid of prose, the most whole of characters. When Violet, distraught, but clear-eyed, tells Leo, “. . . the terrible question is this: What was it that I loved?”, you’re forced to keep quiet too, to think, to wonder. To propose the flimsiest of answers. To say anything. I think this is the very thing about Hustvedt’s novel: It’s beautiful, it’s cleverly crafted, and so it’s quite disquieting when it lulls you, it’s quite disquieting when you find yourself, well, in a state of disquiet, disturbed, possessed with something just this side of dark and chilly, you don’t even have a name for it. And man, I loved it, loved it to bits and pieces.
And more: I’ve realized that the reason why I’ve found it so difficult to write a review of this: It’s just so rich and dense. I wanted to talk about every bit of . Kerry posted a review of the book, and it was that post that finally urged me to sit my ass down and write about the experience as best I could. Head on over there for, by far, more lucid thoughts, if a slightly different opinion of mine.