I was fascinated with this book. It’s told by multiple narrators but the main ones are a 14 year-old Jewish girl named Alma Singer, living with her widowed mother Charlotte and brother Bird in New York and by an elderly Jewish man, Leopold Gursky, who came to NY in 1941 from Poland after losing family and hiding out from the Nazis himself. When he was a young boy, he fell in love with a girl named Alma Meriminski. He wanted to become a writer and by the time he came to the US, he’d already written a book called The History of Love inspired by his love for Alma (who had already escaped to the US). Leopold gave the manuscript of his book to his friend Svi Litvinoff for safe keeping, but Litvinoff went to Chile and his wife reported that unfortunately the manuscript had been destroyed in a house flood. In fact, Litvinoff had published it under his own name—part of his wooing of Rosa to be his wife. Narrator Alma Singer is told by her mother that she was named for the Alma in the book which her father, an Israeli traveling in South America, found in a bookshop in Buenos Aires and used to woo Charlotte, a British visitor to Israel to become his wife. A complication is that Charlotte, whose job is to translate from Spanish to English, is approached (in a letter) by a man named Jacob Marcus, to do a private translation of a book called The History of Love into English. Alma, who thinks her mother is pining after her dead husband, wants to foster romance, rewrites her mother’s spare acceptance letter, hoping that Jacob Marcus might become “the one” for her mother.
In Leopold’s section we learn that he arrived in NY to find that his Alma had married but she also that she had given birth to his child. He cannot convince her to leave her husband, so in a sense he lives his entire adult live through this child, Isaac Moritz, to whom he never reveals himself but whose whole life—and career as a well-known writer—he follows closely. Basically Leopold settles down to a limited life of surviving and, in the present of the novel, is doing odd things (like posing nude for an artist’s class) so that he won’t die on a day when no one has noticed him. He had become locksmith, worked his whole life and retired. When his Alma was dying in a NY hospital and no family member stayed with her all the time, he did—talked to her, read to her, met any need he imagined she might have.
Fairly early on, it’s clear that the novel will proceed through fits and starts until Leopold Gursky and Alma Singer meet. The plot is complex—possibly unbelievably complex—but the voices of the two main characters to say nothing of their activities and those of the people around them are fascinating. The meeting does come and while some reviewers have described it as overly sentimental, I experienced it as startlingly poignant.
Now I'm going to read the book by her husband, Jonathon Safran Foer: Exceedingly Loud and Incredibly Close. In the first pages, I've already seen lots of similarities.