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Wednesday, April 23rd, 2003


What I Loved


A Novel(la) of Ideas

A review by Adrienne Miller

In the marvelous and gripping first third of Siri Hustvedt's fifth book, an academic named Leo Hertzberg recounts the beginning years of his, and his wife Erica's, burgeoning friendship with a brilliant painter and his wife (and the painter's girlfriend). This is intelligent and full-hearted stuff, and What I Loved seems to be shaping up to be a rare accomplishment a thrilling novel of ideas.

The book opens in the mid-seventies in New York. Leo, the narrator, is as fascinated by Bill Wechsler's art as he is with his life, and there is reason indeed to be fascinated with both: Bill's wife Lucille and mistress/muse Violet are both remarkably complex characters. The author's knowledge of contemporary art is formidable, and the descriptions of the artist's early paintings are particularly interesting. Unfortunately, however, the second part of this three-part book veers into melodrama, and the final third into ridiculous farce. The two couples have sons at the same time: Leo's son Matt is killed at the age of eleven in a canoeing accident, and Bill's son Mark... well, calling Mark a "nightmare" is much too charitable. As a teenager, Mark becomes a glitter/glamour club kid, a lying, stealing, drug-addicted disaster. First Mark bites Leo when he's asleep (the sparkly lipstick stain is a pretty convincing clue). Then Mark steals $7,000 from Leo. Then it gets worse. So much worse. There's a death (or two) that he may or may not have been responsible for, a mysterious message on Bill's machine, and assorted unsavory characters with names like Teenie. What I Loved really does seem to want to be two novels. The question is why, when the original impulse was so good?

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