I remember clutching the copy of the book full of expectations and fervor upon seeing it on the shelves in one of the second-hand bookstore I frequent in Manila. Sounds cliche when I say again that I have heard so much from my friends raving about it, but having read her Summer Without Men, I immediately started on it. It took me four long months to read this on and off due to heavy workload at work and also, the intense vulnerable feeling I get when I read it.
What I Loved was narrated by an art historian, Leo Hertzberg. The story and his 20-year friendship with Bill Wechsler started when he purchased one of his paintings in New York. I have found What I Loved surprising because it doesn’t only involve the arts and criticism in the novel but as well as an extensive involvement of psychology and the effects of it on the characters. I was more than elated when I have started reading Part II—in which was described as a punch on the face in this interview. Part I ended with good, happy memories that the shift was difficult to take. I must say that this is also the part of the novel’s pace has sped up and all the more reason why I abandoned reading this when I shouldn’t—there was too much tragedy I can handle. It felt like the universe has conspired that make the lives of the characters miserable when a—spoiler alert!—death of a fictional character was followed by separation of marriage. Hustvedt wasn’t even done with them yet; just when Leo start to develop his relationship with Bill’s son, Mark Wechsler, there he showed betrayal and delinquency. I wasn’t able to get enough sleep because I extended through the night reading the book. It’s been a while since I got hooked like this. I became interested on one point with the idea of hysteria that Violet Bloom was studying and how history and treatments came to address the psychological problem. Also, as I read on, the novel tackled the never-ending problem with Mark—the lies, the fad he participated into, drugs among other things. It wasn’t exactly pinpointed what was wrong with him or what his psychological diagnosis was for me to understand him but I cannot—I wanted to but the boy was ruthless! It was really tiring to wearily spend a lot of time reading about a seriously disturbed person that his repetitive actions has incredible negative effects on the characters who were trying to help him, and even to me. I was so angry and frustrated on the book, to Mark, and even Hustvedt. I want to hurl the book against the wall and shout expletives on that bastard. I want to shout at the characters just to give up on him, leave him alone with his stupid decisions, and move on but the families were too involved on each other (including me, unfortunately) to let go. Hustvedt is a good player of words, not to mention of feelings as well. Although Hustvedt didn’t tie the loose ends on Mark (but I don’t really care, the kid was tiring), the novel ended on the right note.
The longer I live the more convinced I am that when I say “I,” I am really saying “we.”
In the four months I have read this, it felt like I was walking my life along with them. Like my time is parallel to theirs and as I spend my life on my end, they did theirs. I got to know them by heart, how their relationship work and how it didn’t.
What I loved about Hustvedt’s work is her ability to engage the reader in a particular way as well as how clear she images the words she has written. I have read novels before involving the arts but I usually skim-read them as I had difficulties to imagine what the piece or the painting looks like. How can you tell the reader the painting or the piece Bill was creating? Hustvedt has described extensively the pieces in the novel; even how Leo internalized what he thinks and feels about the pieces were on-point. It felt like I have seen them, that I have felt the emotions the characters had. It connects you to the book. There were times that I found myself wishing and dreaming that I have written this book. It was so sad it is so good.
The time I was ending with the book, I have realized that Leo Hertzberg led a very fulfilling and meaningful life but it ended sad because he lost all the people he loved—hence, the past tense on the title. I remember another Leo having the same fate, Leo Gursky from The History of Love (also one of my favorite books).
Sorry for the scatterbrain review but I definitely recommend this book. Easily one of my best read for 2015.