Each of the main characters in the novel are grieving over the loss of a loved one. As a result, one of the key themes focuses on survival tactics used after suffering a loss. Each character chooses a different way to manage their grieving process.
The most obvious instance of this theme is in Alma Singer's decision to become an expert at surviving in the wilderness. When she hears that her father loved the outdoors, she decides that she will learn survival techniques in the event that something happens to her mother. Her brother, Bird, goes to extreme lengths to ensure the survival of his family when he builds an ark in the vacant lot so that Alma and Charlotte can survive the flood that he believes is coming. Charlotte, however, chooses to survive by insulating herself with her memories of her life with David. It is interesting to note that Alma wants her mother to survive by getting remarried, and it is not until very late in the story that she realizes that it is not up to Alma to dictate how Charlotte survives the loss of her husband.
As Polish immigrants who have lost loved ones in the Holocaust, Leo and Zvi have similar ways of attempting to survive their losses. Zvi avoids going home to his small apartment in Chile, where the truth of what has happened to his family surrounds him. He survives by spending time with Rosa and allowing her love to help him heal. Leo survives by using his imagination. His closest friend, Bruno, turns out to be an imaginary character based on a childhood playmate that died in Poland. Even Alma Mereminski Moritz chose to survive her grief over losing Leo by moving on with her life and marrying her boss' son.
The creative process is also used as a method for survival. Leo has written several novels to cope with the loss of Alma Moritz and his son Isaac. Zvi chooses to alter Leo's novel, The History of Love, as a way to process his grief over losing his entire family. Charlotte makes a career out of translating books as her way of grieving over her...