What I Loved is a peculiar novel to review for it’s written in such a way that if I were to write down the plot I would give away three quarters of the book, however by skimping on description I will actually make the novel seem banal. I’m going to attempt to mix both in.
Leo Hertzberg is an art historian/critic who buys a painting by the unknown Bill Wechsler. After being enamoured by this painting he tracks down Bill and they strike up a very powerful relationship.
At this point you could say that Hustvedt is setting the scene. Leo and his wife Erica and getting to know Bill and his wife Lucille and they discover how art can mirror life. Later on both families give birth to boys. Although Bill splits up Lucille and goes for his model Violet things still look relatively bright and the lives of these two families are filled with happiness.
That is until both boys go through a death, which affects both families. Leo’s son Matt experiences one type of death while Bill’s son Mark experiences a death of character as he embarks on a semi love affair with a Michael Alig/Marilyn Manson look alike called Teddy Giles, who exposes him to the shallower side of culture. In the end both families are wounded and they are very long healing ones.
I find that the tension here lies between old and new art. While Leo is obsessed with Goya’s more disturbing pictures of creatures and Bill tries to dramatise (for want of a better word) certain aspects of old and new culture,Teddy, on the other hand is a schlock artist who displays mutilated bodies. In other words he gets an instant horrific reaction with his works. He himself says towards the end of the book that he specialises in quick feelings of contemporary America. Although Leo does understand this he cannot accept it so he and Teddy clash constantly, until Teddy (like Alig) kills a boy as an artistic statement, which helps Leo and Mark break free from this type of existence.
Hustvedt also describes a changing New York, one from a bohemian mecca in the late 70’s/early 80’s to a city of illegal raves and costumed, drug addled freaks. Again the tension between deep and shallow culture prevail heavily.
As I was reading I couldn’t help thinking that What I Loved contained elements of Nanni Moretti’s ‘La Stanza del Figlio’ (The Son’s Room) where a well to do family experience a loss which both strengthens and weakens them and the film Party Monster, which focuses on the life of club owner Michael Alig and the rave scene in New York. Despite this the novel itself is an excellent read and has a complexity which draws you into the story as you progress. On reading other reviews I have heard complaints that the first part is dry while the other parts pick up pace. This is not true and it is a wholly consistent novel.
One thing I am enjoying about this challenge is how some novels inadvertantly cross reference each other. During one scene in the book, Bills second wife, Violet is writing a thesis on madness in women and she goes into the story of Balnche Whittman, The queen of hysterics, which I read about in Per Olov Enquist’s The Book about Blanche and Marie (book no. 985). The world is relative after all.