Kemper's Reviews > Great House

Great House by Nicole Krauss
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Feb 18, 11

bookshelves: 2011, modern-lit, plain-old-fiction
Read from February 14 to 17, 2011

I’m more a genre guy than a literature reader, but I’ve been trying to branch out lately. I’m glad I did because I’ve read some amazing things that I probably wouldn’t have tried otherwise. However, it only takes one book like this send me running back to the mystery or sci-fi section for comfort. It wasn’t bad, but it’s just working so damn hard to be an ‘important’ book that it really isn’t much fun to read. And maybe all books shouldn’t be fun, but they really shouldn’t feel like this much work either.

The book begins in the early 1970s in New York with a writer named Nadia losing all her furniture due to a break up with a boyfriend. A mutual friend steers Nadia to Daniel Varsky, a young Chilean poet who is getting ready to leave New York and has an apartment full of furniture he wants to loan out until he returns. The most impressive item is a large desk. Nadia takes the furniture and later hears that Daniel was tortured and killed in Chile during Pinochet’s brutal rule of the country.

Years pass and the one constant in Nadia’s life is the desk. However, when a young woman claiming to be Daniel’s daughter from a fling he had in Israel shows up, Nadia immediately relinquishes the desk to her, but soon regrets it.

Several other stories are told in parallel to Nadia’s. An Israeli man mourning the death of his wife pours his heart out in a story to the son he never understood. The husband of a British writer discovers a shocking secret about his wife after her death, and a young woman reflects on her love for a man who had an odd relationship with his sister and their father who is trying to recreate the study of his childhood home that was lost in the Holocaust. Eventually, the links between all of the stories emerge.

Krauss is one of those writers who impresses me technically but leaves me a bit cold despite writing something that was obviously going for the heart. A big part of my problem is that that four of the characters are almost exactly the same. Nadia, the British writer, the young woman in love, and the Israeli son are introverted types who live their lives mainly through books and words to the point of ignoring everything else. I especially found Nadia tiresome because this is a woman with every advantage who deliberately chooses her writing career over relationships yet whines about her own nature constantly. It’s hard to feel too sympathetic for someone who cut themselves off of their own free will and yet who is so fragile that the loss of a desk will plunge them into a depressive bout of writer’s block.

The plot comes together in a nice web of cause-and-effect, but overall this book felt like getting stuck in a conversation with someone who obviously wants to be doing something else, but then proceeds to tell you about everything they’ve talked about with their psychiatrist.
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