Book Review: Great House by Nicole Krauss

Ok, bookworms. I read Great House on my honeymoon - that was the first week of November - and I'm only now figuring out what to say about it. Still figuring, even as I write this. Do the math: that's four months later, people, which does not bode well for my thoughts. I usually finish a book and immediately start singing its praises (or problems, even) to the world, whether they want to listen or not.

But this book took some mulling. Not necessarily a get-under-your-skin and stay-with-you kind of mulling, but an I-really-don't-know-how-I-felt-about-that kind of mulling.

As expected, Krauss' writing style is strong. As with History of Love, there are passages here that leap off the page and stand alone, beautiful in their own right:
"No, I don't harbor any mystical idea about writing, Your Honor, it's work like any other kind of craft; the power of literature, I've always thought, lies in how willful the act of making it is." (p. 18)

"But don't you feel, deep down, that there's something special about you? he asked me, carelessly swinging his legs while down below us swimmers, or perhaps dogs, tried to make their way against the current. No, I whispered, trying to hold back tears, No, I don't, while Daniel Varsky looked at me with a mixture of bewilderment and pity." (p.205)
The characters here, all tied loosely together by their association with an antique writing desk composed of drawers of various sizes, struggle with their human condition: they are imperfect, they are unsure, they are growing old, and dying, and losing their families. These emotions are familiar, and thus, I found that I identified, in some way, with nearly every one of the many characters littering the pages of Great House.

Despite this, however, the novel as a whole lacked the substance to hold it together. Though the lessons to be learned on aging, family, and acceptance are powerful ones, the tie of the desk was not nearly as alluring as I had hoped it might be. I turned the last page of the book expecting more, still waiting for the story to end.

Bottom line: Perhaps the muddled nature of Great House was intentional, for even though this book ranks low for me, I do not doubt Krauss' skill. Maybe I missed something, or maybe I wasn't in the right mindset, or maybe my expectations were just too high after falling head-over-heels for History of Love. But ultimately, Krauss' most recent novel left me slightly confused, waiting for resolution, and still unsure of what I'd read.

6 comments

  1. I started reading this one--was THRILLED to receive an ARCT--but at the end of the day there wasn't enough to keep me interested. I abandoned it, sadly, but I may go back to it one day. In the meantime, I'll try The History of Love and hope for a winner.

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  2. I think I feel similarly about reading this book to how you felt about reviewing it. Last fall, I was itching to get it - but now I've had it on my shelf for four months, and after reading so many reviews from which it was pretty clear no one knew exactly what to think about the novel - except that it wasn't exactly mind-blowing - my fervor to read it has cooled quite a bit, too. Good writer, so-so novel seems to be the general summation. I'm still going to read it...eventually.

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  3. That last paragraph sums it up perfectly...I felt the same way.

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  4. I can't offer anything new. I received an advanced copy because of my love Krauss's work. However, I ended up finishing the other book the publisher threw in before even getting to the halfway point in GH. Her skill is no doubt mesmerizing, but the stories, themselves, were so heavy with despondency that I had to put it aside to save my energy. Many of the characters were so passive in their suffering, and the number of their presence, was overwhelming. I still vow to finish, but feel I'll never be as enamored as I was with The History of Love. And that's ok.

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  5. Andi - Definitely don't pass on History of Love because of your experience with Great House. I really, really loved History of Love, and Krauss' skill as a storyteller is much more prevalent there than it was in Great House.

    Greg - I know what you mean. I'll still look forward to more from Krauss, this one just fell flat for me.

    Softdrink - Glad to hear I'm not alone.

    Beth - Like I said to Greg, my disappointment with Great House has not turned me off of Krauss all told. I'm ok with being disappointed in it, as much as I'd hoped for more.

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