Published in 2003, Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved lies somewhere between a love story and a thriller. It follows the life of art historian Leo Hertzberg and his relationship with artist Bill Weschler and his wife Violet. What begins as the story of Leo and Bill builds into the story of both of their families and the connections between them, eventually settling on the story of Bill’s son Mark. It is a novel about family, art, love and grief – and about something else, something more sinister, something that I can’t quite put my finger on.
I found novel both engaging and interesting. It is undoubted a gripping read, especially after Part One, and while reading I was increasingly drawn in and fascinated by these two families living in such close proximity, as well as by Bill’s art. Yet what is odd about What I Loved is that it doesn’t seem to have any sort of consistent plot. Rather than one story woven through the novel, it is made instead up of multiple shorter plots stitched together. They are stitched together well, certainly, but I still felt like I was reading a completely different novel in Part Three to the novel I had started in Part One. The novel seemed to have changed tone, focus, meaning, and even genre by the end. Now, I do rather like books that blend and merge genres, but I find it more effective when they do so from the start, rather than merely shifting half way through.
I’m also not entirely convinced by all the plots the novel does have. Part One seems a realistic study of the lives of a few individuals in the art world. Likewise, much of Part Two of the novel I found moving and, for want of a better word, true. The reactions and emotions of Erica and Leo to their situation feel entirely real, and are beautifully communicated. Yet with Mark’s story, which begins in Part Two and takes over in Part Three, my engagement began to waver. His plot is simply bizarre, and verges both on the impossible and the melodramatic. It is not Mark’s behaviour which I didn’t believe, so much as the odd series of events it pulls Leo into. As with Auster’s The Book of Illusions, I feel that at times Hustvedt goes too far (although perhaps I’m just looking for connections between their work as I know they happen to be married). Although I was thoroughly gripped by Part Three, I found it unconvincing. This is not to deny that the novel’s plot has drive. I read the two-hundred-and-fifty odd pages of Part Two and Three in one sitting. And yet as I read I couldn’t quite suspend my disbelief. I just kept on thinking that I didn’t believe what was happening. And for me truly brilliant fiction makes you feel as you read that it isn’t fiction at all.
Leo’s character is successfully built and maintained throughout the novel. It would be wrong to say I liked him, but he certainly works; while I wouldn’t want to befriend him, I did want to read about him. Violet is also well-drawn and intriguing, and Bill is probably my favourite character. I like the subtle inconsistencies of his personality, and his love for Violet seems genuine and believable. He feels like a real person. Mark is brilliantly unsettling. It is the other characters that I feel let Hustvedt down. Lucille is interesting, but seems characterised so much by her coldness that we never get to see any depth of her character. Perhaps she isn’t supposed to have any depth, but I still found myself wishing she was more fleshed out. Likewise I wish we had got the chance to discover more about Erica, who seems somewhat dismissed in the novel. Teddy Giles I also found two-dimensional, as though he were a character taken from a melodrama rather than one created by the same author as the central characters.
I’m making it sound as though I didn’t like this book. I did. At least, I think I did. The language is brilliantly crafted and you feel no doubt whatsoever, when reading What I Loved, that you are absorbed in the work of a gifted and very intelligent writer. The plot and some of the characters are deeply engaging, and this is certainly the sort of book you could write essays on. Moreover Hustvedt is great at creating a sense of atmosphere, of unsettling foreboding, at ominous hints that make you both desperate to read on and dreading what’s next. I really admire that. And yet, the book did pose several problems to me. It is a strange, bitty sort of book, and the beginning and end almost don’t fit together. Besides that there are a few plot incidents or characters that stuck out as less effective than the rest of the book.
So I remain undecided, and am not quite sure how to pass a verdict on What I Loved. But if you want an engaging, thought-provoking and sometimes troubling read, I recommend you try it and see if you can make up your mind better than me.
Greatest strength: Maybe the characterisation of Leo, Violet and Bill. Or the unsettling atmosphere Hustvedt manages to get across in Part Three.
Greatest weakness: The novel’s structure and inconsistent plot.
Let’s finish on a quote: Like everyone, Bill rewrote his life… We manufacture stories, after all, from the fleeting sensory material that bombards us at every instant, a fragmented series of pictures, conversations, odors, and the touch of things and people. We delete most of it to live with some semblance of order, and the reshuffling of memory goes on until we die.
Next week: The Hungry Tide, Amitav Ghosh