Leopold (Leo) Gursky is an elderly Jewish man living in New York and waiting to die.
Leo remembers growing up in the Polish town of Slonim. It’s here that he meets and falls in love with Alma Mereminski, and woos her by writing imaginative stories. But their relationship is cut short when the rise of Nazi Germany prompts Alma’s family to send her to America. Leo promises he will never love another, and is inspired to write The History of Love as a tribute to her.
As German forces advance towards Slonim during World War II, Leo gives the manuscript of The History of Love to his friend Zvi Litvinoff for safekeeping, and escapes into the woods. He remains in hiding for two years, and then spends six months in a Displaced Persons camp before finally making his way to New York City to reunite with Alma.
But when he finds her in Brooklyn, Alma is married to another man. She has a son, Isaac, whom Leo instantly recognises as his own. He asks Alma to leave her husband and come with him, but she refuses. Broken-hearted, Leo honours her wish to be left alone, but keeps a watchful eye over his son from afar. Having lost his manuscript and the love of his life, he settles into a quiet but successful career as a New York locksmith, bolstered by the steady presence of his childhood friend, Bruno Shultz.
In a parallel story, Alma Singer is a teenage Jewish girl, named after the central character in a Spanish-language novel, The History of Love – her parents’ favourite book. Still grappling with her father’s untimely death from pancreatic cancer, and the devastating affect this loss has had on her mother, Alma sets about finding a cure for her mother’s loneliness.
She believes the answer lies in The History of Love, which Alma’s mother has recently been asked to translate from into English for the mysterious Jacob Marcus. Through the course of her investigations, Alma discovers that Jacob Marcus is really the famous writer Isaac Moritz, son of the real-life Alma Mereminski.
Isaac has recently died, but his brother rings to tell Alma that he believes the original author of The History of Love was a man named Leopold Gursky. However, it is Alma’s younger brother, Bird, who answers the phone; his misinterpretation of the message leads him to arrange a meeting between Leo and his sister.
Leo has no idea that his book ever made it into print. In fact his old friend Zvi, on emigrating to Chile, translated the manuscript into Spanish and passed it off as his own to secure the love of his wife. When the confused Leo and Alma meet on a New York park bench, the girl confronts the old man about his past by asking him if ever loved a girl named Alma Mereminski or wrote The History of Love. At this point, Leo has a heart attack and dies.
The final chapter is called “The Death of Leopold Gursky”. It is Leo’s self-penned obituary. It is exactly the same as the last chapter of the book within a book, The History of Love.