What I Loved, by Siri Hustvedt. Henry Holt. 384 pages. $25.
The tone of Siri Hustvedt's new novel, What I Loved, is established by the very title. It's distant, elegiac, even a bit fatigued. Not quite a sentence, not quite a declaration, it is the tale of loves and passions past, not present, and a life nearing its end.
Hustvedt's greatest accomplishment in this, her third novel, is the ruminative tone of a man nearing the becalmed end of his life after fiery times. Art historian Leo Hertzberg has been through a lot -- along with his friend, the painter Bill Wechsler, and their respective wives, Erica and Violet, and their children, Matthew and Mark. But the storms he's passed have left him meditative and quiet, distant from the passions that once roiled him. It gives nothing away to quote the book's last lines: "It's eight-thirty in the evening on August 30, 2000. I've had my supper, and I've put away the dishes. I'm going to stop typing now, move to my chair, and rest my eyes. In half an hour, Lazlo is coming to read to me."
In this novel, Hustvedt comments at some length (but always by example) on contemporary fine art culture. The novel is studded with long digressions about the meaning of art and hysteria and intimate discussions of the cattiness and petty intrigue of the art world. Hustvedt writes occasionally for the magazine Modern Painters and other art publications and clearly has a deep love of and knowledge of painting and painting technique. Her descriptions of imaginary paintings are vivid and precise, creating images in one's mind that seem quite real until you remember that there is no Bill Wechsler, there are no such paintings.
The portions of the novel that deal with the art world and the portions that deal with the always shifting, never predictable passions and separations of the two central couples are moving and skillfully drawn, particularly after a startling, extraordinarily painful (and extremely well delineated) loss at the book's center. Where Hustvedt is on shakier ground is in the novel's denouement, which takes an unexpected and not entirely convincing turn into the world of transgressive art and the New York City nightclub scene.
Individual characters from this demimonde are artfully drawn, particularly the anorexic, vague girls who dot the scene. Here she describes Teenie Gold: "About five feet tall and seriously underweight, Teenie had white skin that was tinged with gray beneath her eyes and on her lips. A shock of blue colored her otherwise platinum hair and a gold ring glittered in her nose. She was wearing a shirt with pink teddy bears on it that looked as if it might once have belonged to a two year old." But the book takes a turn into violence and pursuit that is, oddly, less compelling than the smaller, more routine dramas of life that came before.
Despite the wrong turn at tale's end, this is a novel that both moves and intrigues. It is particularly refreshing to hear from a character with a sense of perspective. He's had a great deal, he's lost a great deal. He is neither sanguine nor sorrowful over it anymore -- just accepting and quiet, going on with what's left of his life. That tone, a difficult one to sustain, gives What I Loved a memorable sort of quiet power.
Martha Southgate has been a staff writer for the New York Daily News and the magazines Premiere and Essence. Other work by her has been widely published. Her two novels are The Fall of Rome (2002) and Another Way to Dance (1996).