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True Lies

Siri Hustvedt's What I Loved

With an ensemble of fewer than ten principal characters, Siri Hustvedt's What I Loved, a psychological thriller sheathed in the Manhattan art scene, seduces the reader by constantly shuffling the deck and dealing new pairs.

Hustvedt's narrator is Leo Hertzberg, a Columbia University professor of art history who is forty-five when the story unfolds in 1973. Leo buys a painting from the then unknown artist William Wechsler. The purchase is Wechsler's first sale and this secures a lifelong friendship between the two men. Wechsler's theory on art could be a prescription for Hustvedt's approach to prose. Bill says, "I am not interested in nudes. They're too arty, but I'm really interested in skin." Similarly, What I Loved uses the trendy art world as a setting, but is never enslaved by its shiny veneer.

The twosome becomes a foursome when Wechsler and his poet wife Lucille buy a loft above the flat Leo and his wife Erica own in the Bowery. When both wives bear their first sons in the same year, the intimacy strengthens. The infrastructure must be redesigned when Wechsler leaves his wife for an NYU grad student named Violet. Violet, unlike Lucille, loves William fervently. "She is so responsive," Weschsler tells Leo of Violet.

While many women authors would condemn this man as another victim of May/December romance, Leo suggests that Wechsler, when he married the cold Lucille, married a version of his distant father. By choosing Violet, Wechsler is taking a wife for the first time.

The Hertzbergs welcome Violet into their group and the ensuing years of Bowery life until the dynamic shifts again. Erica and Leo lose their 12-year-old son in a summer camp canoe accident. Consequently, Erica leaves Leo and takes a teaching job in Berkeley. Erica loves Leo but she can no longer breathe in the space where her son once lived. Leo does not follow her to California and, once again, the definition of love is tested, this time by setting free what is loved most.

While some authors would use this plot point to shape the rest of the book with Leo's attempts to win Erica back, Hustvedt's takes a different, possibly more realistic approach. Leo makes use of what he has left, his relationship with Bill, Violet, and their son Mark.

But Leo no longer lives in the free love '70's. Rather, he finds himself in the techno '90's where love is more pharmaceutical. Seemingly accommodating, the now teenage Mark is a pathological liar and thief. Here, the book really takes off, as Hustvedt brilliantly illustrates the parental dilemma of being lied to, and knowing you are being lied to, but staying in the game because you have no other choice.

As a fiction writer, one is a professional liar. One has to make lies seem real. So is Hustvedt condemning herself when she writes of Mark? To the contrary, Hustvedt says that the difference between the artistic and the criminal is that the artist lies with his/her own voice while the pathological liar is a cipher-warbling only what s/he thinks the intended wants to hear. Violet muses that Mark's real crime is his "pretense of compassion, so perfectly modulated, so believable, so authentic."

With a title like What I Loved, one might assume that the novel is one step away from the Harlequin shelf. But when your author is not only Mrs. Paul Auster but an established poet, essayist, and novelist in her own right, one realizes that distillation is not so simple. What I Loved is not so much about love in its obsessive terms as it is about mixing: mixing genders, mixing lies with truth, mixing artist with audience.

"Descartes was wrong." Violet tells Leo. "It isn't I think therefore I am, it's I am because you are. What matters is that we're always mixing with other people. Sometimes it's normal and good, and sometimes it is dangerous."

What I Loved
by Siri Hustvedt
Henry Holt and Company; ISBN 0-8050-7170-9
Hardcover: 367 pages (February 2003)

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