In this rather quirky novel, Krauss tells the story of love, loneliness, and loss as experienced by two very different people. Leo Gursky is an octogenarian living in a crowded apartment in New York. Growing up in Poland in the 1930s, he fell deeply in love with a girl from his village. When she emigrated to American just before World War II, Leo lost touch with her. After the war, when he was forced to hide or be sent to the concentration camps with the other Jews, he made his way to New York. But nothing turned out as he'd thought. In the present day, Leo feels invisible, and when he goes out he purposely does things to attract attention in order to prove to himself that he still exists.
Alma Singer is a young girl dealing with the loss of her father. Her mother Charlotte is fading away, spending hours in her room translating old books and remembering her beloved husband. Convinced that her mother needs to fall in love again to survive, Alma tries to find men for her mother to date. When a mysterious man writes to Charlotte asking her to translate her father's favorite book, Alma tries to discover his identity, hopeful that he can help her mother re-enter the world.
What connects these two characters is a book, The History of Love. The book, the main character of which Alma was named after, becomes central to the lives of both characters. To Leo it represents his past, his love, and the son he never knew. To Alma it represents her father, her mother's grief, and a possible future for her family. As their connection to each other is slowly revealed through the course of the novel, we understand the triumph of the human spirit over fear, loneliness, and doubt.
Krauss' use of language in this novel is lyrical and moving. Her treatment of her two rather eccentric characters is warm and kind, especially Leo's character. He is a cantankerous old man, which would make him rather unlikeable if the main target of his frequent sarcasm wasn't himself. Alma's character is very relateable, if a little less realistic. She often reads older than her supposed age in the story, but it works well enough. The story goes back and forth between Leo and Alma as narrators, which I some people find challenging to keep straight, but I did not find it distracting or off-putting in this book. The story is heartbreaking-it highlights the way that forces outside of our control can cause our life to go in directions that we never expected. The bottom line is that life is not fair-it certainly wasn't fair to either Alma or Leo. But despite that, there are opportunities for love, tenderness, and redemption.