What I Loved: What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt

What I Loved is Siri Hustvedt’s third novel, published a decade ago now, and set in New York, opening in 1975. It follows Leo Hertzberg, an art historian teaching at Columbia, who forms a life-long friendship with artist Bill Wechsler, after purchasing a piece of his work long before he was established. The book follows both men as well as their wives, Erica and Violet, who are both academics, and their sons, Mark and Matthew, who were born at around the same time. The two families each live in the same apartment block on Greene Street in SoHo.

Being Siri Hustvedt, the author has lined her novel with a near encyclopedic meandering through art history, psychology, psychopathy and hysteria, and the nature of identity and memory. The sharpness of Hustvedt’s mind, combined with her clean prose, is compelling and utterly engrossing. The research is thorough and learned, for example: Violet is writing her dissertation on hysteria, and much of this material is taken from the writing and research of Hustvedt’s sister, Asti, who wrote on the subject for her PhD thesis. This sort of stuff doesn’t make for light reading, but Hustvedt’s novel is the type, perhaps like Milan Kundera’s, that delights by teaching you things you didn’t know, and is often startling in the acuteness of its observations.

Between this, we wobble with these characters over 25 years of love and friendship. The book, in its latter parts, is teeming with suspense, and a foreboding ripples out across each of their lives. The story becomes both disturbing and sad, and this nexus is where Hustvedt has created a sublime tension. On the first page of the second part, we learn of something terrible that afflicts each of the characters (I won’t spoil it here); the revelation smacked me in the guts, and for days I felt physically bruised by the event. Again, another shift, when Mark befriends a conceptual artist, Teddy Files. From here, the novel charges and I found these shifts in pace masterful.

I loved this novel, also, for its depiction of New York. It was a city that I hadn’t visited at the time I read Hustvedt’s book, but she seemed to have rendered, with familiar warmth, all my expectations of what it might be like to live in that city at that time. That the characters in What I Loved exist in an art-world milieu beyond my experience didn’t matter to me at all. Each of these characters, the two wives perhaps just a little more, were ensnared in my heart for some while after I’d finished reading.

Belle Place is the editor of Readings Monthly.