Book # 18
This novel is narrated by Leo Hertzberg, an art historian in New York City, who tells of what he’s loved (and lost) in his life. The story begins when he buys a painting by Bill Wechsler that he loves so much that he helps to launch Bill’s career. Both men have sons of the same age, one of whom dies tragically in childhood. The bulk of the novel is about the other son, Mark, who is passed from home to home and adult to adult, and how this affects him psychologically.
I was thoroughly astounded by Hustvedt’s undertaking here. In What I Loved she has created at least half a dozen depthful, realistic characters that I came to care about. The story Leo tells us of what he has loved and lost in his life kept me up at night a time or two and left me aching for him.
The most interesting theme is duplicity. Early on, the Wechsler and Hertzberg families are each other’s double. As struggles and tragedies impact the families, they change in different ways and look less and less like mirror images. The novel takes advantage of this opportunity to show two different outcomes of the events, two different ways that the characters are impacted, two different reactions.
Hustvedt also adds amazing and wonderful detail to her prose. She has clearly done thorough research on many topics: hysteria at the turn of the 20th century, psychological disturbance and psychopathy, eating disorders, and art. In particular, I loved the detailed descriptions of Bill’s works of art, which are very creative and interesting. They give fascinating insight into the fictional story, but they are also imaginative, beautiful, and sound very much like something that could actually be seen in a modern art gallery or museum. I wished several times, but most especially when Bill was working on the series of 101 doors, that I could go see his work in real life. The details are so precise and visual that it seemed to me this art must exist!
During the more action-packed sequences of the novel, such as when Leo chases Mark across the Midwest, the prose gets a little news-y; by this I mean that it reads like a feature article in a magazine more than a novel. However, this strikes me as a much better way to keep these sorts of scenes exciting than the usual way authors do it: by dropping any semblance of character continuity or growth.
Overall, this isn’t a happy book but it is an impressive one that has left me a lot to think about. Hustvedt has successfully mined love and loss to write a beautiful novel. There is also plenty to learn here about several other themes, including art, mental disorders and hysteria, and the effects of violence and drugs on a teenager and his family.