What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt

Central Park

I finished reading ‘What I Loved’ by Siri Hustvedt a couple of days ago, and have been trying to decide what I think about it.

I enjoyed reading it, and there were parts of it that I found both moving and thought provoking.  But there were other sections that I’m not sure I really understood.

It’s a novel about art and artifice, and the impossibility of really knowing another person, and the idea that we see what we want to see.

Told as a first person narrative by Leo, an art critic towards the end of his life, as his sight is failing, it tells the story of his friendship with Bill, an artist; it examines the way their lives and those of their wives and children interact.

The book falls into three parts; in the first Leo introduces us to the history of his friendship with Bill as well as to his art.  I did find part of this a bit confusing and dry, but once I was used to the analytical tone and the skipping about in time was behind me, I became engaged with the characters.

The book really takes off when a tragic loss, a fatal accident affects the group.  Empathy with the grief and sympathy with the way their friendship sustains them took over from the earlier dry observations on the New York art scene.  I was moved by the way each character’s reaction to the loss was shown; I reflected on the caring nature of a friend who will force food and silent companionship on you when in the depths of despair.

In the final third the story turns into a thriller of sorts as Leo tries to discover if Mark, Bill’s son has been involved in a murder which may or may not have been committed by an up and coming sensationalist artist.  In this section Leo is forced to confront the ways in which he has been both deceived by Mark and has deluded himself by seeking to see the best in the boy.

I found this section gripping and hard to put down, although I must admit that I expected more revelations about Mark; there were a couple of incidents earlier in the book which (perhaps because I am an avid crime thriller reader) I had anticipated were clues to greater revelations at the climax, but it turned out that either they were more in the nature of red herrings, or I should simply have taken at face value.

Authorial intention or oversight?  In the context of the ideas in the novel I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.

One of the characters is researching and writing about madness and hysteria in the 19th century, so we are invited to think about the evolution of the way in which mental illness is perceived and treated over the years; the way in which both the diagnosis and the presentation of symptoms could be used as a power play between doctor and (usually in context of ‘hysteria’) female patient.

There is a great deal of description of Bill’s various art works which, told in the voice of the protagonists art critic’s voice, are long and analytical.  It’s the deeper meaning of these sections that I think probably passed me by.

The art works don’t exist, but in the description of their intricacies (and I did read them, although was periodically tempted, as I am when a novelist throws in some poetry, to skip over them) there seemed to be a lot of looking through doors, or lying down on gallery floors to peer through windows; perhaps a mirror of the contortions that Leo performs in order to pick up the clues in his review his life and his friendships, but if that is the sole point of them, they do go on a bit.

But do give it a go, as I need someone with whom to debate it!

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  1. harrietfish

     /  March 12, 2011

    Hi Rowena,
    I loved this book although I do recognise that she has a very particular style. I think she manages to mix fairly dry, plain, analytical style with descriptions of odd and surreal events which gives her books a sort of dream like feel which I really like. The characters are all terribly intellectual and creative and you could criticisize her for that I suppose but I was completely gripped by them, particularly as they move into stranger and more frightening territory. I too am usually bored by descriptions of art in boooks, and nearly always skip bits of poetry too, but I did read these as the scenes described added to the surreal, slightly halucinatory quality that the book has.

    • Hi Harriet. Thanks! So lovely to hear from you. I did enjoy the book, and was entirely gripped by the final third. I also enjoyed the fact that while the characters are intellectual, when tragedy hits all discussions about ideas go by the wayside and it becomes about emotion and the succour of friendship and a hot dinner. I did want Leo to wonder about the possibility that Mark was somehow involved in Matt’s death, the focus on the lost Swiss Army knife somehow wasn’t enough; I felt he should move on to question everything about the boys’ friendship. Also I wanted there to be consequences from Leo’s sleeping with Lucille; that felt like an abandoned thread. Reading the first section felt like a struggle – given all the advice that the opening chapter of a book should grip and engage, I found it interesting that for me the least gripping part of this was the beginning. This is in the context of my own endeavours to ‘improve’ the first chapter of my own manuscript!


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