Although Siri Hustvedt was born in Minnesota, her early life was steeped in Norwegian culture. Her mother had moved from Norway the year before she was born and her father was third generation Norwegian American. Siri's first language was Norwegian and she had her first visit to Norway at the age of five. Her father was recognized for his work with the Norwegian American society and taught the language and literature at a local college. Siri spent her last year of high school in Norway and graduated there. Her novels have been translated in twenty-nine languages. Visit her website for more information about her other works.
For me, the mark of a great book is one that, while I am reading it, I say to myself "This is the best book I have ever read." Now granted I am prone to saying that with some frequency, but for me, What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt was just such a book. I loved every part of it - the mundane, the excitement, the familiar, the unknown, the art, the critic, the loneliness, the camraderie. This book has everything and then some. The focus is clear as we have a single narrator who leads us through his twenty-five year friendships in New York's art world. Before I delve any further into the plot, let me tell you a bit about the author.
Now on to my review of What I Loved. The sole narrator of the novel is Leo Hertzberg who is a middle-aged art historian who teaches at a New York college. Through his memories we meet the other major characters. Because we come to know them through Leo, the novel is character driven with our opinions spinning out from Leo's encounters. Initially we meet Leo's wife Erica who is a writer. Leo's life changes when he purchases a painting by Bill Weschler. Leo befriends the artist, Bill's first wife Lucille, and his second wife Violet - the woman in the art Leo purchased. The two families bond and the novel recounts their intertwined lives for twenty-five years. With Leo, we struggle with what is real and what is really only remembered - altered for psychological reasons unknown even to ourselves. We witness joys and sorrows, loves and betrayals.
My favorite parts of the book however were the descriptions of Bill's art work, especially as they came from an art historian and critic (and beloved friend). Further, Bill's work was influenced heavily by Violet's research - first on hysteria in women in past centuries and second on eating disorders of both men and women. One art exhibit was a series of doors which actually opened into variously sized rooms containing multi-media art scences. One scene showed Holocaust victims starving to death. The descriptions were fascinating and needed to be read slowly to take in all they had to offer.
As you see, this novel provides the reader with multiple levels of scrutiny. There is the physical, the art, the psychological, and even the meta-physical. I plan to read the novel again and again. My favorite passage is near the end of the book:
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. (p. 364)
TITLE: What I Loved
AUTHOR: Siri Hustvedt
RECOMMEND: This was a deep and expansive novel. The stories and remembrances will remain with me for some time and I will return to Leo's story again and again.
AWARDS: New York Times Notable Books of the Year (WON AWARD) 2003
Galaxy British Book Awards (NOMINATED FOR AN AWARD) 2004
Orange Prize for Fiction (NOMINATED FOR AN AWARD) 2003