Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Mathematics of Love by Emma Darwin

  • The word ‘math’ gives me a brain freeze, so the title The Mathematics of Love made me hesitant and I imagined a romance between calculus professors. Happily, this is not the case. Nor is it a fluffy soap opera, instead, it’s full of complex emotions and insights.Similar to books such as The English Patient, where two different stories unfold concurrently, this one cuts back and forth between the early 1800’s and the mid-1970’s, often in the same chapter. One seldom gets confused, because the 1800’s voice has an old-fashioned formality, whereas the modern one is looser and cynical.The earlier story centers on Stephen Fairhurst, who lost more than a leg fighting at Waterloo and elsewhere. When he returns to England after the war to claim an inheiritance, he meets Lucy, an artist and relative of some family friends, in the midst of shocking circumstances. Their friendship grows through letters and later, encounters. The possibility of romance is an undercurrent throughout the book.The modern half of the story stars Anna, an intelligent teenager whose life is rather aimless, mostly through no fault of her own. When her mother goes off with a boyfriend to open a hotel in Spain, she is sent to live with an uncle at a defunct boarding school. There’s no one left there but her uncle, her mentally unbalanced grandmother and an abandoned little waif, Cecil. Anna escapes this unsettling atmosphere by working for a neighbor couple, Eva and Theo, who are photographers. Through this relationship, Anna not only finds love and acceptance, but a connection to Fairhurst, whose estate is now her uncle’s home. Photography provides not only a metaphor, but also a shield, an opening, a stepping stone. It causes Anna to reflect,”And the sun moved on and took the day with it, while the plate held those shadows and kept them, and carried them to other places and to other times before it was found again. One of those times was mine.”The story travels from France to England to Brussels and Spain, each filled with local color. The past is evoked vividly with details of architecture and clothing, “a cartwheel of her hat”. I especially liked learning more about paper shops at the time, which served as places of gossip, political news and sometimes, the equivalent of singles bars. There are parts of the book that is truly disturbing, not just the war time incidents, either. Contributing to that feeling is the single page at the end of each chapter filled with nightmares, memories and fears. Some of those bothered me too much to finish reading them.It is amazing to think that this is a first novel, it has such depths and layers. Many authors never reach this level after a dozen books. I’m failing to do justice to how much Mathematics… impressed me. From the opening which left me gasping, to the poignant ending, it is an intricate tapestry of human relationships, the grip of the past and the redeeming power of possibilities.

    *In the interest of clarity, it must be noted that the author is a reviewer on this site. However, I don’t know her well enough to be a friend, which allowed objectivity in my review.

    Headline Review 2006 472 pp. ISBN 978-0-7553-3064-5

15 comments on “The Mathematics of Love by Emma Darwin

  1. litlove
    February 12, 2008

    This sounds wonderful, and I will certainly be looking out for a copy of it.

  2. sequinonsea
    February 12, 2008

    Great review, Jackie. Out of the two strands in TMOL I think I preferred the modern one. I thought the relationship between Anna, Theo and Eva was incredibly realistic, sad and thought-provoking. The other strand was also intriguing and I felt like I learned a lot about the period. It was also a perfect counterpart to the modern strand. I was awed by the narrative of photography weaving through the novel.

  3. Trilby
    February 12, 2008

    I, too, preferred the modern strand (despite my penchant for the past!) and I wondered how TMOL would have worked if it had started with Anna instead. Thinking about it “cinematically”, you’d expect this, wouldn’t you – the introduction to a mysterious old house, the setting of a somewhat contemporary scene, followed by flashbacks to the historical bits. Whereas I found myself struggling to orientate in the initial Peterloo scenes.

    I thought that the soldier’s story developed into quite an interesting tale – the mystery of the lost love, heightened by the presence of a child and the possibility of a new romance was certainly holding my interest by the halfway mark. But I couldn’t help feeling that the tension was held up by occasional over-writing/research, if that makes sense. On the other hand, I thought that Emma’s storytelling abilities really shone through with Anna’s story, because there was less historical context that needed filling out (admittedly, Emma replaced this with the technicalities of photography/film processing, but I found these scenes very interesting and not at all bogged-down). So the characters of Anna and her grandmother and Cyril, not to mention Theo and Eva felt much more real. Compare that to the Lucy/soldier story, which felt more like a conventional period romance (I couldn’t help being reminded of Villete in terms of the slightly chilly emotional response that it evoked and the more conventional leads: independent-minded woman, wounded Byronic hero etc.)

    But there was heaps to admire, and I agree with Jackie that this doesn’t feel at all like a first novel. Am very interested to see what’s next!

  4. rosyb
    February 12, 2008

    I am rather ashamed to say I haven’t read this yet. Although I fully intend to. I think it’s just the sheer width of the book that’s been intimidating me to be honest – being the slowest reader known to man.

    But I have heard Emma say before about the problem with parallel narratives is that people will inevitably prefer one to the other. I would be very interested to know if she has a favourite strand, herself, or if her attitude to each part changed as she was writing it.

  5. sequinonsea
    February 12, 2008

    “the problem with parallel narratives is that people will inevitably prefer one to the other” – good point. I’ve heard lots of people say they preferred the historical strand (Leena will no doubt come on and say that very thing 😉 )

  6. Leena
    February 12, 2008

    Well, Leena *almost* says so 😉 I was more intrigued by Stephen’s narrative but initially found it difficult to get into; whereas Anna’s narrative was immediately accessible though I was less interested in it overall. Or perhaps I should say that Anna’s narrative was more quietly interesting… I was very impatient to get to the heart of the mystery of Stephen’s ‘great love’ and that kept me turning the pages, whereas Anna’s story was absorbing in a completely different way. I thought the novel would have been much poorer without either strand and they complemented each other well – and my favourite characters were Anna and Lucy, so my interest was split more or less 50/50. I loved the little boy Cecil too.

    Like Trilby, I wonder what the novel would have been like if it had started with Anna. The opening as it was left me quite confused and I had a couple of false starts when I originally read the book… could be that I’m just easily confused, but if anyone has similar problems with the beginning I suggest you persevere all the same, as the 1819 plot in particular got better and better as it progressed. When I had a quick re-read before this review, I found myself quite appreciating the amount of detail that had disoriented me the first time around.

  7. Jackie
    February 13, 2008

    But had it begun with the modern story, it would’ve been more conventional. I think the Peterloo part was an unforgettable opening. In this way, it raises a host of questions, in additon to showing a lot about the personalities of the characters. One of the touches I really liked was the portrait of Stephen holding a letter, how appropriate.

  8. Emma Darwin
    February 13, 2008

    Am I allowed to thank Jackie for such a thoughtful review? I do if I am… And it’s fascinating to actually hear such a range of responses – it’s surprisingly rare to get an actual conversation about

    As far as the two strands go, my very unscientific experience is that it divides about 60/40 in favour of Stephen, so the opinions on this thread seem to be shifting the balance a bit. But, yes, most people have a more direct emotional response to one thread than the other, even if they enjoy both strands and see why they’re there, and how they work together. I think that’s inevitable, don’t you? Some books just do get one in the gut, and even your best friend won’t quite get it as you do, and will have a book that gets them, and doesn’t you.

    As far as which strand I prefer, it’s hard to answer because I knew Stephen in several guises before I knew Anna (the full story’s on my website here: http://www.emmadarwin.com/pages/writing/the_mathematics_of_love.htm ) and had his voice and his story and everything. Anna was originally dreamt up to be as opposite to him as possible, so when I started writing the novel I knew her so much less well: I had to find her voice, her thoughts, her attitudes. But I grew to be extremely fond of her, in a sometimes slightly exasperated way, so now I couldn’t say which I like more, as characters. But I do love writing Stephen’s prose, particularly. Because I can use proper, sophisticated grammar, as opposed to Anna’s more losely-jointed voice, there’s so much more I can do with his language: there’s the whole range of balance and rhythm at my disposal, and I can structure and express a thought to its full capacity. It’s language that tastes good…

  9. Jackie
    February 14, 2008

    Thanks, I’m glad you were pleased with the review. The book had more of an impact on me than expected. I’m going to check out the links, because it will be interesting to see how the story came about.
    I think it’s a compliment to your skills that you made Anna a person that more than teenagers could like & relate to. She was realistic, but not a “…Whatever…” bimbo. Secretly I harbor the hope that there are more sensitive & intelligent teenagers out there than we realize.

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This entry was posted on February 12, 2008 by in Entries by Jackie, Fiction: historical and tagged , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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