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What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre, 2003) is the first of her novels that I have read. It is not exactly what I was expecting – I suppose I rather thought that Mrs Paul Auster might write something as coolly detached as her husband (a silly, sexist, knee-jerk response, but one fostered by reviews of her earlier two novels). I certainly did not expect a determinedly realist novel that is as crowded with emotion as this book. It is a wrench to read simply because of the potency of the emotional blows she submits her characters to. I don’t think I have read any novel which deals so powerfully and convincingly with the effect of the death of a child.

At the core of the novel are two smart New York couples. Leo, the narrator, lectures in art history and is an acclaimed art critic, his wife, Erica, lectures in literature and is an expert in the novels of Henry James. Leo’s best friend is the artist Bill Weschler, and Bill’s second wife, Violet, writes a series of books on the cultural phenomenon of psychological disorder. Leo first seeks out Bill when he buys one of Bill’s early paintings, a portrait of Violet. They become close, Bill and Violet move in to the flat above Leo and Erica, their sons are born within weeks of each other, the two families take holidays together at a house in Vermont. The account of the friendships between these four people is beautifully handled in the early part of the book (and refreshingly does not descend into the conventional tale of adultery that you half expect it to).

Then Matt, Leo and Erica’s son, is killed at the age of 11, and the novel suddenly takes an unexpected turn. Grief and loss become the central figures, rather than the joy and friendship that has gone before. Grief, Hustvedt tells us, does not draw people together but rather pushes them apart. In their attempts to come to terms with the scale of their loss, Leo and Erica end up pushing each other away, and separate. Left on his own, Leo has to depend ever more on Bill and Violet, until Bill too dies; but that draws him further into the problems they have with their own son, Mark. Mark is a congenital liar and thief who, by his mid-teens, is running around with a charming but amoral young artist. This is where Hustvedt’s control of the book faulters, because the whole story of Mark and Teddy Giles descends too readily into melodrama that seems even more overblown set against the subtleties of the rest of the novel.

Nevertheless, apart from this problem with plot that surfaces about two thirds of the way through and runs as a garish thread through the whole of the rest of the book, this is an extraordinary novel.

First published at Livejournal, 23 January 2004.

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