WHAT I LOVED | Siri Hustvedt

What I Loved - 2

Summary from Goodreads:

What I Loved is a deeply touching elegiac novel that mourns for the New York artistic life, which was of a time but now has gone–by extension, it is about all losses swept away by mischance and time. Half-blind and alone, Leo tells us of marriage and friendship, and makes the sheer fragility of what seemed forever not only his subject, but perhaps the only subject worth considering. Scholars Leo and his wife Erica admire, and befriend, artist Bill and his first and second wives–their respective sons Matthew and Mark grow up together until the first of a series of tragedies strikes. And things get gradually worse from then on, both because terrible things happen and because people do not get over them.

Part of the strength of this impressive novel is its emotional intensity and part is the context in which those emotions exist; these are smart and talented people, even the children, and we luxuriate, even when things are at their worst, in the sheer intelligence they bring to bear on their situations. It is also impressive that, for Hustvedt, intelligence is an end in itself rather than something that prevents tragedy or makes it more bearable. This is a powerful book because everything Leo knows makes him ever more the victim of exquisite pain. –Roz Kaveney

My Thoughts:

I read this book a few months back and until now the pain and beauty of it stays with me. It was my first time to read Siri Hustvedt and I approached the book with a mix of hesitation and excitement. A couple of my friends named this as one of their best reads, so, of course, I got curious. I was also a bit hesitant, though, because I have read in articles that Hustvedt’s books are often, if not always, hailed at par with Paul Auster’s, whose The New York Trilogy I read some few years ago (last year?) and which messed up my brain really bad. I am intimidated by books like this but despite the hesitation, I was still won over by the raves and reviews. I’m glad I was brave enough (haha) to overcome my insecurities (that I won’t be able to get what this book is all about.). What I Loved has also now become one of my best reads for this year.

What I Loved is divided into three parts, the first part begins with the yet unnamed narrator (which eventually is known as art historian, Leo Hertzberg) telling about his discovery of Bill’s letters to Violet. A portion of one letter is quoted – a portion which is easily intriguing enough – and I must confess that I read the rest of the first part with only mild interest. What kept me going was the delicate and very vivid description of the paintings and Bill’s visual art. I am not really big on art appreciation (I prefer words over colors) but the brilliance of the author in using words to depict something that should be looked at and therefore, making me – an art moron, haha – learn to appreciate paintings and sculptures and whatever it is you call Bill’s art, is really dazzling. Really, Hustvedt, you amaze me.

And so I prodded on and when I thought that the story is going nowhere, Part I ended, and with a bang. My goodness. I had to close the book and stop reading after that. I don’t remember for how long I put off reading this book because the sheer heartbreak of Part I traumatized me. But of course, I had to continue with Part II and with a broken heart, I did. There is really something powerful in the simplicity of Hustvedt’s words. The narration is clear and the characters are all fleshed out – flaws and quirks and strengths. I really love all the characters, especially Bill whose sadness I can only commiserate with. If Part I shocked me, Part II devastated me. My heart is torn into pieces all over again. And as I read Part III, my emotions are thrown about like in a rollercoaster ride. The thing with Hustvedt’s characters is that it is impossible to hate them. True, they have faults and they are imperfect, and aren’t we all? Are we supposed to be hated for our faults?

There are so many things that are going on in the book as I read it: art and art history, pain, grief, loss, love, betrayal, mania, depression, mystery, even violence. The story of Leo and his involvement with Bill’s life is both tragic and enlightening. I got so involved with the characters and in the story that sometimes I have to remind myself that it’s fiction I’m reading and not a memoir. What I Loved is a very compelling book. My meager skills in writing a review cannot give justice to it. All I can say is read it, read it, read it.


            “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.”

My Rating: 4/5 stars.

My copy: Paperback from Booksale (Php 35.00)

Buddy read with Tricia. See her review here.


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