"Every story we tell about ourselves can only be told in the past tense," says Leo Hertzberg, the narrator of Siri Hustvedt's compelling third novel, What I Loved (Henry Holt, $25). An art historian and SoHo resident, Leo draws this conclusion near the end of this fantastic epic. Each person's own story, he asserts, "[W]inds backwards from where we now stand, no longer actors in the story but its spectators who have chosen to speak." Throughout the novel, which begins in New York in the mid-'70s and continues into the present, Leo outlines his life's milestones and minutiae. He examines both with a historian's scrutinizing gaze and an artist's eye for the beauty and horror that hide in small corners. And he takes both those roles in his own life's drama: imperfect actor and erudite spectator who comments on the proceedings. Central to Leo's long, spiraling-backward glance is his friendship with artist Bill Wechsler. The two men meet and become friends after Leo purchases one of Bill's early paintings, an oddly active depiction of a reclining woman with the equally odd title Self-Portrait. Leo is the first person to ever purchase a piece of Bill's art, and the simple transaction helps establish Bill's career and creates a lifelong bond between the two. When Bill and his first wife split up, the artist marries Violet, the woman who posed for Self-Portrait. The new couple eventually moves into the loft directly upstairs from Leo and his literature-professor wife, Erica. Each pair seems to happily reflect the other. While dealing with relationships and art-world intrigue, What I Loved is more about how one's vantage point shapes one's perception of life. It unfolds slowlythe way real life doesand the pace strengthens this uncomplicated theme. Hustvedt allows plenty of room for us to absorb the bright bursts of thought and slim rays of insight that gently filter through each pageoften through Leo's opinions. Criticizing a rival art critic's writing, he muses, "It's a language I've come to hate, because it admits no mystery and no ambiguity into its smug vocabulary, which arrogantly suggests that everything can be known." Death, separation, illness, and alienation sting both Bill and Leo. Lives that had once seemed so perfectthe adjacent SoHo lofts, the intelligent and adoring wives, the matching young sons, the blossoming careersslowly crumble, and the debris demands to show up in Bill's art and in Leo's love life. Hustvedt handles the descriptions of both deftly. Bill's work becomes increasingly macabre, inspired partly by his wife's studies of eating disorders and partly by the real-life horrors that beset both families. In a sense, he's standing too close to his subject when he creates (the same thing he once did with Violet and Self-Portrait). By contrast, Leo copes with hardship by standing farther back from his losses and grief. "Studying [Goya's] monsters and ghouls and witches kept me occupied for hours at a time during the day, and his demons helped to keep mine at a distance," he notes. As Leo fluidly steps through his recollections of the last 25 years, he periodically mentions a desk drawer that holds important mementos from his lifetime. The drawer symbolizes the novelit contains the same memories and allows the same discoveries. In this way, Leo's role in life echoes Hustvedt's authorial rolethey're both organizers who draw connections. And no matter how much he loses in life (and it's a lot), Leo can still touch those keepsakes in the drawer; he can still feel their importance. Time moves on, often without our permission. Like Leo, we must get to know ourselves over and overto see ourselves anew, to create self-portraits in our perceptions of others, as Bill does with his art. Like Leo, the luckiest among us will learn to preserve the important artifacts. The luckiest among us will learn how to tell our stories in the past tense, as What I Loved does so well. firstname.lastname@example.org Siri Hustvedt will read at Elliott Bay Books (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Fri., March 28.