I completed Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved yesterday and I don’t think I can say enough about this book – it is definitely in the running for my favorite book of 2009. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book that so well balances beauty, structure, character and plot before – it is the kind of book that makes me want to give up writing altogether because no matter what I will never be able to create a book as gripping and stunning as this one.
I started this book late last week, and over the course of the six or so days it took me to read it I developed a mild sinus infection – not so terrible as to keep me bedridden but just awful enough that I worked half days, spending the hours after lunch first napping and then reading this book long into the evening. Apart from short walks with S. and the dog I had the energy for little else, and so reading What I Loved was an interesting reading experience – I rarely have the opportunity to remain still for hours at a time, and this luxury allowed me to fully sink into the story, to become immersed in the world of Leo, Erica, Bill, Violet, Lucille, Matt and Mark for long stretches.
The book centers around the friendship between two couples – art history professor Leo Hertzberg and his wife, a professor of English, Erica, and artist Bill Wechsler, his first wife, Lucille, a poet, and his second wife, Violet, an academic. Leo purchases a painting from Bill early in Bill’s career, and this purchase launches a life-long friendship between the two men. In one way, this book is about that friendship and the toll only time can take on two people. What Hustvedt does so beautifully, though, is immerse us totally in the lives of these two men – we meet their wives, their siblings, their parents, and we attend parties with all of these people in the same room. (Bit of a spoiler alert coming up, just fyi) – We sigh in relief when Bill leaves the awkward and uncomfortable Lucille for the passionate and much more likable Violet, his artistic muse. We meet the sons of both men and, as the reader, we become apart of the very intimate, messy world that plays out between two families tied together by the friendship of first, the two men and later, by their wives, their sons.
The book, though, is also about art – it’s filled with pages and pages of description about the art Bill creates and it is written is such a lovely yet accessible way that I at once found myself fascinated by the work Bill created and determined to learn more about the history of art, myself. It’s also about art criticism, and the roles of the art historian, the art critic, who determines what art IS, the inherent value of art. At one point Leo points out that art, by its very nature, is useless, but that doesn’t make it unimportant.
All of this is well and good – intriguing, complex characters and long discussions about art, but those two elements alone wouldn’t have left me so haunted and impressed. From the first page of the novel, you realize you are reading a mystery. I don’t want to write too much about here because I really want to encourage everyone to run out and buy this book, but you understand, as the reader, that life was once one way for Leo, the narrator, and now it’s extraordinarily different, and the book is going to tell you why, and the journey is not going to be an easy one. One of the blurbs on the back refers to this book as psychological thriller and it absolutely is – and that is what keeps you turning the page as opposed to setting the book down and meditating on various thoughts of the artist and art.
Oh, I just loved this book so much! I loved this book because I’ve met characters like the ones in this book – I’ve met women like Erica and Violet, who throw themselves fully into life, all passion and no reserve, and I’ve met people like Lucille, who never manage to say the right thing or make people comfortable in their presence, and are maligned for this inability; and I’ve read about artists like the shock-artist Teddy Giles. And I loved this book for the way Hustvedt created New York City – not once does she spend long paragraphs describing the city and yet I never doubt for a moment where I am – she writes about the New York City I dreamed of living in as a child, full of artists and actors and poets, the New York my drama teacher told me when I was twelve years old didn’t exist anymore.
Have I raved enough? This is the kind of book that makes an aspiring writer both rejoice and despair – rejoice at the discovery of a new-to-her author with awe-inducing talent, and despair because I do not have the natural talent to write like this.
I am going to leave you with one of the more light-hearted paragraphs from the book, a paragraph that does nothing to give away the plot but gives a small taste of Hustvedt’s writing:
Birth is violent, bloody, and painful, and all the rhetoric to the contrary will not convince me that I am wrong. I have heard the stories of women squatting in the fields, snapping umbilical cords with their teeth, strapping their newborns onto their backs, and picking up the scythe,but I wasn’t married to one of those women. I was married to Erica. We went to Lamaze classes toether and listened attentively to Jean Romber’s breathing advice. A storcky woman in beruda shorts and thick-soled sneakers, Jean referred to birth as “the great adventure” and to the members of her class as “mom” and “coaches.”