This was a lovely book, following what appears at first to be two stories, but that turn out to be two parts of the same story. In one Leo and Eleni have been travelling in South America but the book opens in the hospital where Leo awakes to find Eleni has been killed in a bus crash. The story then trails back and forth in the consequences, their relationship and their journey as Leo tries to recall the events and come to terms with his loss.
In the second story Moritz has been snatched from his beloved Lotte by the advent of the First World War. His story is being told by a dying man to his son Fischel, recounted as an inheritance to his children and grandchildren, the story of how his fledgeling love for Lotte sustained him through the horrors of war and imprisonment and the suffering of a four year trek across Russia to be reunited with her.
The two tales are about two different aspects of love and its impact. The first is grief and the slow inexorable break down of Leo as he tries to make sense of life without Eleni, and the other is hope, how if you love someone you are capable of incredible things in order to fulfil your dream. The book has an interesting structure but I found myself mainly wanting to get to the point where I knew why the two stories were connected, they seemed to be so far apart. The tale of Moritz was the difficult part to read. It was quite harrowing in places and did not stint on the details of his experiences. The research and understanding of people's experience of the war was very well done, and also the complexities of the post war situation, with the revolution in Russia and the political breakdown across eastern europe. The author plainly knew a great deal about the history of the period and the subtleties of the ethnic groups and allegiances across the whole area. Whenever I read anything about ordinary people's lives during war time I am left bewildered by their apparent ability to cope with massive trauma and deprivation and still hold on to some sense of humanity and continuity of life. When I read at the end that the book is based on the true story of the author's grandfather you cannot help but feel quite humbled by his suffering and endurance.
The other track of the story is Leo trying to hang on to his love for Eleni, going through a series of strange obsessions. He is studying ant behaviour for a PHD but finds himself distracted and begins researching animal mating rituals, seeking to find examples of true bonding between individuals, to find a kind of pattern in nature that makes love a real thing. He then finds himself drawn to quantum physics through meeting a new professor and the idea that at a 'particle' level bonds can be created between electrons that endure across time and space, providing him with the nearest you could hope to get to a 'scientific' explanation for love.
All in all a very clever interesting way to embellish a quite simple tale of love lost and found. Although a little like last time (with the Philip Roth) I found the book to be only about the two men, their women being merely idealised symbols on which to focus their affection. But a good read nonetheless.