In February of 2011, when I first read Great House by Nicole Krauss, I tore through it in 6 days, and as soon as I finished, I wanted to read it again. Finally, this year, I did.
Great House is the story of an enormous desk, and the people who owned it through the years. Sort of. It is told through four different stories, and each story has two parts. I described the stories in 2011, and I hate to repeat myself, but the shortest synopsis of the stories is this. "All Rise" is told by Nadia. She is a writer who received the desk from a person named Daniel who later disappears under ominous circumstances. She turns the desk over to Leah. "True Kindness" is a great father-son story showing the distance that can grow between two people. The son, Dov, wanted to be a writer, but his father so discouraged him that he became a judge instead. The third story is "Swimming Holes". This is the story of Lotte, who is a writer, and her husband, Arthur. Lotte escaped the Holocaust as part of the Kindertransport, and she doesn't like to talk about that part of her life. When Lotte gets Alzheimer's late in her life, she inadvertently lets Arthur in on some important secrets that she has kept for years. Where Lotte got the desk is a mystery, but she gives it to Daniel. The final story, "Lies Told by Children" is of Izzy, and her strange relationship with Yoav and his sister, Leah. Their father, who is called by their surname, Weisz, escaped the Holocaust, but his family's home was ransacked, and his father's desk was stolen. It is his life's purpose to reclaim all of the items stolen by the Nazis and the family's opportunistic neighbors.
When I first read the book, I was left with lots of questions. I wanted to find the connections between the characters that I knew that I had missed. This time, I did everything differently. I read the book quickly in 2011. Instead of going even faster on the second reading, I took more than twice as long, and read with a pencil in hand. I underlined every name, eye color, and year. I made parallel time lines for each story inside the front cover of the book, and kept checking them. And after the first story, I was embarrassed.
It was so obvious! How could I have missed it? Clearly, Daniel was Leah and Yoav's father, who just used a different name with Lotte and Nadia. It was plain as day that Lotte was his mother. Until I read further, and it was clear that she was not, and he was not.
After my second reading, with attention to detail, notes and time lines, I still feel like I have missed the connections. Don't get me wrong. The novel is great, and it isn't confusing. I just feel like there are clues and I am still not seeing them. My best guess after the second time around is that Lotte and Weisz were siblings or cousins who lost each other in the war. Daniel is related to both of them. Maybe he was a descendant of another sibling. It's possible that he was a nephew to them both, or a descendant of a cousin. I don't have a good connection to the "True Kindness" characters, other than to speculate that the father could have been involved in the theft of the desk somehow or he could have sold the house in Israel to Weisz. But maybe that's not the point. Maybe the whole point of the book is that if we look hard enough for connections between people, we can find them, whether they are real or imagined. It's the Keven Bacon game, times ten thousand. Maybe the characters are all just people who happened to live near each other or are unrelated owners of a desk. Maybe Lotte put an ad in the newspaper that she had a desk for sale and Daniel saw it. Nothing more.
This is the first book that I read for the Year of Re-Reading Challenge. Great House was a NYT Notable Book for 2010.
If you are reading this before June 13, 2014, don't forget to click here to enter to win the audiobook of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.
Next Up: The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman
Still Listening to: The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian