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Bookmarks Issue: 
50-Jan-Feb-2011
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A-GreatHouseNamed one of Granta's Best American Novelists Under 40 in 2007, Nicole Krauss received wide recognition for her first novel, Man Walks into a Room (2002), about an amnesiac man's search for himself. The History of Love ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection July/Aug 2005), a novel within a novel described as "Jewish magical realism," earned Krauss wide popularity and acclaim. Great House was short-listed for the National Book Award. See our interview with the author in our previous issue, Nov/Dec 2010.

The Story: An enormous, foreboding writing desk stolen from Budapest in 1944 ties together disparate lives bound by sorrow, loss, and misfortune. Nadia, a lonely novelist in New York City in 1972, accepts the desk from Chilean poet Daniel Varsky, who later disappears under Pinochet's regime. In 1999, Varsky's purported daughter arrives to fetch the desk--and Nadia's life unravels. The desk also touches a recently widowed Israeli and his long-estranged son, a London judge. In England, former Nazi refugee Lotte Berg keeps devastating secrets from her husband. Finally, the children of an itinerant Hungarian antiques dealer abandon a young Oxford student. As each narrates his or her story, from the Holocaust to Pinochet's Chile, from Israel to present-day New York, the desk comes to represent loneliness, regret, and the burden of memory.
Norton. 289 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 9780393079982

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Here [Krauss] gives us her tragic vision pure. It is a high-wire performance, only the wire has been replaced by an exposed nerve, and you hold your breath, and she does not fall." Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Delayed revelation is one of the author's signatures, and in this, her third novel, she manages it with satisfying elan. ... When Krauss' organic scenes soar, she is stunning." Karen R. Long

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Great House is more ephemeral than its predecessors, an impressively structured and intricate puzzle. ... The issues are so tough that it feels as though Krauss holds the reader at some distance, perhaps to protect both herself and the reader from the pain that bubbles beneath the surface of each of these discrete but linked tales." Robin Vidimos

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"While her prior, much-vaunted novel, The History of Love, was certainly fresh and winning, Great House strikes me as a richer, more seasoned exploration of the themes and images that bedevil Krauss--a graver investigation, deserving a more serious admiration. ... Yet every page vibrates with the tension of something unsolvable insisting on being solved." Joan Frank

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Krauss's understanding of the varieties of human suffering--exceptional in a writer so young--makes the experience of her characters resonate in us. ... The tying up of loose ends feels hurried and perfunctory, and the last-minute surfacing of a fifth narrator hurls the story backward into the past without telling us anything we didn't already know." Ann Harleman

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Krauss refuses to relieve her characters of this sense of anguish, and that can become oppressive. But if you bear through it, Great House is an eloquent dramatization of the need to find that missing piece that will give life its meaning." Sam Sacks

Entertainment Weekly 2.5 of 5 Stars
"We are led to believe, over the course of 289 meticulously crafted but often slogful pages, that these many filaments will be tied together in some grand, revelatory denouement. That Krauss instead lets them all just drift away is perhaps House's greatest mystery." Leah Greenblatt

Critical Summary

Critics agreed that Great House will amply reward the patient reader. Ambitious, provocative, and slightly abstruse in its inquiries about how to live, how to make art, how to suffer, and what it means to be Jewish, the elegiac Great House offers a series of first-person narratives, each a rich portrait of a shattered life that bears only marginal relation to the next. The novel, notes the New York Times Review, "require[s] readers to reassemble the full story for themselves"--so those hoping for a fast-paced storyline with neat endings may be disappointed. If some critics didn't quite make the connections, they nonetheless heaped praise on Krauss's mastery of heavy themes, her first-rate prose, and her emotional intensity. "Krauss, who began her career as a poet, can do just about anything she wants with the English language," says the Boston Globe. In sum: another poetic, deeply felt novel from a writer to watch.