This is a distinctly Jewish story, almost Talmudic in its interpretative layering. People tell stories about themselves, and these stories are shaped not by their voices or characters but by unique self-understandings. Each story is essentially a puzzling out of an experience of loss … Each of these stories shares the unmistakable quality of confession. This is an odd word choice, given the Jewishness of this book—the austere yet overwrought language, the pride and self-abnegation, the way objects are metaphors and actions are parables. But these are not private confessions between a sinner and her pastor, where redemption is the goal. These are stories of people—meant to be heard, understood, and, most critically, never forgotten. So this is Krauss’s take on the Jewish confessional mode.
The characters of Great House lack all trace of exuberance. Normal life does not beckon them. They inhabit their sorrow with a lover’s ardor, cultivating it into an art form. There is a forbidding, and seductive, remoteness about them that captures those who draw too close and then can get no closer … What gives the quickening of life to this elegiac novel and takes the place of the unlikely laughter of The History of Love? The feat is achieved through exquisitely chosen sensory details that reverberate with emotional intensity...Krauss has taken great risks in dispensing with the whimsy and humor that she summoned for her tragic vision in The History of Love. Here she 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 It is a high-wire performance, only the wire has been replaced by an exposed nerve, and you hold your breath, and she does not fall.
Great House is an exercise in kaleidoscopic storytelling, a novel that seeks to weave four groups of characters into a larger meditation on memory and loss … There's a lot to be said for using a piece of furniture to evoke the inner life of not just characters but also families — not least because it allows the novel to exist, a bit, outside of time. ‘Unlike people,’ Krauss writes, ‘… the inanimate doesn't simply disappear,’ and as Great House progresses, she establishes the desk as a trace or imago, an echo of the past that reverberates into the present day .. The ease with which it moves among them only undermines its metaphoric power, reminding us that, whatever it may stir in us, the inanimate remains inanimate, which means, on the most fundamental level, that it can never be enough.
Four main narrators, thousands of miles apart, deliver somber testimonies of their lives and their interactions with this errant piece of furniture. How are these narrators related? Where did the desk come from, and what are its ‘hidden meanings’?…The dispiriting punch line to this complicated novel is that these mysteries are the least interesting thing about it. The desk turns out to be rather incidental, and the obscure relationships among some of these characters are merely accidental. The riddles that soak up so much attention are distractions from the moving stories that these disparate narrators have to tell … Despite these several narrators and their widely differing stories, a kind of tonal monotony lies across the novel, which is devoid of the charming humor that leavened The History of Love. Great House remains unrelentingly serious, even dreary in its portrayal of ‘extreme solitude’ coalescing into remorse.
...a montage of four haunting human portraits, each so engrossing that the effect is of a spotlight switching from one character to another … Krauss [has an] astounding capacity for creating empathetic and fully imagined characters who, in the few pages allotted them, manage to relay the full spectrum of happiness, anguish, anxiety, self-doubt, and hope that has colored their lives … Krauss excels at incubating moments of human understanding—epiphanies, if you will, though that word can suggest a cheap or easy realization, and Krauss’s epiphanies feel organic and earned—that resonate with readers as much as they do with her own fictional creations.
Steeped in place and memory, Great House is a worthy successor to Krauss’ earlier works, more complex and more challenging. It is a fine distillation of much of what has come before, but one that calls for time and patience … Great House is more ephemeral than its predecessors, an impressively structured and intricate puzzle. A description of plot is elusive; this is an exploration of lives and characters that enfolds more than propels the reader. Each section stands on its own while revealing itself as another piece in a painful, searching jigsaw.
‘What is a Jew without Jerusalem? How can you be a Jew without a nation? How can you make a sacrifice to God if you don’t know where to find him?’ These are the questions that drive Nicole Krauss’s third novel, Great House … The novel at times feels slow. All action has already occurred and the tension comes not from the moment to moment situation of the characters, but from the meta-narrative that ties the characters together. Though it reaches moments of elegant reflection, the novel lacks urgency … While the novel poses high stakes questions about Judaism, the characters themselves thirst for something even greater than love, the need to be needed, the desire to belong. It’s this unrelenting combination of intellectualism and emotion that kept me hooked.
Great House centres on a massive writer's desk. Filled with 19 awkwardly shaped drawers, one of which is never unlocked, it is ‘an enormous, foreboding thing that bore down on the occupants of a room.’ The desk has come to be vitally important, if sometimes obliquely, to four different characters, who each tell their stories in portmanteau style … The plotting here is subtle and fractured, almost demanding a second reading to put all the pieces together. Mainly, though, Great House is a meditation on loss and memory and how they construct our lives. It takes its title from a talmudic idea of Jerusalem after the Temple was destroyed by the Romans, a ‘great house’ that was burned … Great House is a smart, serious, sharply written novel of great care and yearning.
In Great House, a character reveals that her favorite shape is a square – perfect in a book that opens with four narrators occupying four chapters. For the book's second half, Krauss repeats three of her chapter titles, each told by the same damaged speaker, only to finish with a twist – seven pages in the voice of the antiques dealer who casts his form and shadow across the entire book … The desk acts as a repository for the yoke of inheritance. That's a lot of freight for a piece of furniture. At times, Great House creaks under the weight...But when Krauss' organic scenes soar, she is stunning.
A book sunk in mystery, Great House is like a nesting egg that skips generations, with some riddles never to be solved, much as the narrators' efforts to crack the codes of their inscrutable loved ones almost always end in failure. Krauss charts the life cycle of love in alternating chapters – new love, lost love, and lovelessness. In the last, in which the long-single New York writer makes a pilgrimage to Israel to reclaim the desk, Krauss presents a brutalizing portrait of a middle-aged woman reawakening to desire to disastrous effect. It's the least pleasurable chapter but also the most potent in a book that is both challenging and – in its very best stretches – ravishing, too.
This stunning work showcases Krauss's consistent talent. The novel consists of four stories divided among eight chapters, all touching on themes of loss and recovery, and anchored to a massive writing desk that resurfaces among numerous households, much to the bewilderment and existential tension of those in its orbit … Krauss pulls together the disparate elements, settings, characters, and fragile connective tissue to form a formidable and haunting mosaic of loss and profound sorrow.
""A many-drawered writing desk resonates powerfully but for different reasons with the various characters in this novel about loss and retrieval … While the disparate characters do not necessarily interact, their choices affect one another over the course of decades. Brainy and often lyrically expressive, but also elusive and sometimes infuriatingly coy; Krauss is an acquired taste.