My friend Amy has been telling me to read Siri Hustvedt for about two years now. I finally borrowed her copy of What I Loved (2003). I borrowed it on a Friday afternoon and by Monday morning I had finished it. I could not put it down.
It isn’t a thriller. Yet there are some elements of that. It is the reflections of an older man looking back on his life and its intersections with his friend Bill, an artist, and Bill’s first wife Lucille and second wife Violet. Leo is our writer, and through the pages of his joys and his grief, we remember what it is to be human. We can recognize ourselves in his writings.
Leo is an art history professor in New York City. He and Bill both have sons around the same time. Leo’s son is Matthew and Bill’s son is Mark. I don’t want to give too much away, but Matthew dies at summer camp when he is eleven and Mark lives. As Mark makes his way through the turbulence of teen life, Leo is there for him. He takes him on and gives him a place to be when he is lonely or upset. He supports Mark, all the while remembering his son Matthew. Leo’s wife Erica left when Matthew died. The grief was too much for her, so while they remain married, they live on separate coasts and see each other irregularly. Mark becomes Leo’s family, and Leo remains close to Bill and Violet.
However, something isn’t quite right with Mark. As the narrative progresses, we gain more and more insight into Mark’s oddness, but it is through Leo’s lenses, which are clouded by love and closeness. While the strangeness reaches a denouement and we eventually get more of an idea of just what Mark has been mixed up in, I still felt like something was missing.
In fact, what is missing is an outside perspective. It is something Leo discusses with his son Matthew before he died. Matthew noticed that as human beings, we can see so much, but we are always left out of the picture. We cannot see ourselves. Leo discusses this theme several times, and it is almost as if as readers we become Leo and we can never quite get the whole picture of who he is or who Mark is, because Leo is in the way. This distance overshadowing observation and experience is the genius of the novel.
Interestingly, what Leo loved was far from perfect. His experiences are flawed and ordinary and heartbreaking and boring. He’s just a guy. He’s just a guy with some friends and a family that has difficult things happen. Yet what he loved was what all of us love. We all love blindly. We all love without reason or necessity. We may love the mundane. We may filter our excess love toward a person who does not deserve it. We may love the heartache, after it has dulled. Leo’s love is human love, and there’s nothing inherently remarkable about it.
Hustvedt’s writing style reminded me of Donna Tartt’s work. I have long appreciated Tartt’s style and her dark and interesting stories. What I Loved reminded me of Tartt’s work, especially The Little Friend and The Goldfinch.
I plan to read more Hustvedt, even with the realization that I may not get the whole picture of every character that I wish to know more about. She writes mysteriously, yet honestly. She writes real life, yet it is interesting and gripping.
I have a new favorite author!