My sampling of Historical Fiction Around the World continues! When I first started The Mathematics of Love by Emma Darwin I was a bit confused. It’s written in first person and I didn’t know enough about the skirmish it opens with to follow what was happening. So I had to go back to the book description to find my bearings before I restarted reading it. Here’s what the book is about:
The Mathematics of Love is a poignant chronicle of two people, separated by centuries, whose lives—amazingly, impossibly—become interwoven in a brilliant tapestry of tragedy, memory, and time. Following alternate but intimately connected stories—of a curious, promiscuous teenager in her season of exile and awakening in the English countryside in 1976, and a nineteenth-century soldier damaged on the fields of Waterloo, struggling to find his way back to life with the help of a compassionate, extraordinary woman—Emma Darwin’s breathtaking narrative brilliantly evokes the horrors of war, the pain of loss, the heat of passion, and the enduring power of love.
The book starts in the point of view of Major Stephen Fairhurst during an altercation in a small town involving a young boy getting caught up in the middle of things and a woman looking out for him. The woman becomes a friend of the Major and is quite a strong-willed, forward-thinking woman indeed for that time period. Perhaps too much so at times, but I’m looking at this through a 21st-century lens so my expectations may be somewhat skewed.
The other point of view is that of a fifteen-year-old girl in 1976 England who is indeed promiscuous. She’s practically treated like an orphan, though her mother and her boyfriend/lover are supposedly going to send for her when they establish a new business in another country. Her uncle is put in charge of her in a defunct school which used to be a country estate, the estate of Major Fairhurst in the previous century.
So my first question about the author’s story is why 1819 and 1976? Why a difference of 157 years? It’s a prime number which reflects the title on one level. But how does it apply to the story, or rather two intertwined stories? I don’t have an answer, but if you do, please share!
Since I was rather confused by the opening chapter, I went in search of reviews to find out how others had handled the opening. This book has very mixed reviews, most of them not positive. Many were confused by the story, and several thought the book a waste of money. I wouldn’t go that far, because I did enjoy most of the story. I do think the author missed some amount of potential for the story by keeping the story threads unwound for so much of the book. But it did end up tied together for the most part.
There are similarities between the past and story-present time periods. The 1819 thread includes a woman who sketches the world around her, while the 1976 thread has a deep dive into photographic techniques of the time. Both look at light, shadow, capturing memories, being aware of the beauty and wonder of the world. Some play on ghostly images and echoed images can be seen between them as well. These themes are dear to my heart as my father was a photographer and we talked about these things frequently.
Another theme between the two times is that of forbidden or discouraged love of varying kinds. In the past, the strict societal constraints on women and their sexuality, their activity, their reputation is a primary topic of conversation with regard to the Major’s friend. In the present, the teenager also rebels against societal constraints but ultimately in both times they bow to the need to comply however unwillingly.
Emma Darwin’s writing style is also remarkable. She did an excellent job of distinguishing the time periods through her authorial voice modifying to suit the Major or the teen. Without the need for noting the difference in time period, I could (usually) tell when the shift occurred, whether it was indicated through typography or not. I will say some of the transitions were jolting, going from an intensely happy moment to one of battle and bloodshed, for instance. Perhaps she was aiming to emphasize the contrast of joy to horror? For me, it felt more like a non sequitur.
Overall, I enjoyed finding out more about the impact on the soldiers after the Battle at Waterloo. The 1819 thread of the story was far more interesting to me than the 1976 thread. But then, I have never enjoyed reading about wayward youths, especially when they basically get away with their bad behavior for one reason or another. As the book description mentions, there is a good deal of the “heat of passion” primarily with the teen. The 1819 story also includes passion, but with adults in a more emotionally satisfying relationship than the teen’s. I don’t want to give too much away in my impressions of the book, but the mirroring effect of having couples in both stories engaging in relationships that some would find inappropriate is another way Darwin contrasts and compares love in its many guises in both times.
This novel is far more about the lives, loves, and times of the two time periods than about the battles in the 19th century. If it weren’t for the 1819 time line this wouldn’t qualify as historical fiction, since the other is in 1976, and thus too recent. Yet it’s mainly through the teen’s interpretation and growing understanding of Stephen’s letters and life that we gain a clearer picture of his life story. The ending to the book is mostly satisfying but leaves open, at least for me, a few questions.
That’s my impression of this story. Did you read it as well? What are your thoughts and opinion of the story? I’d love to hear from you if you’ve read it.
Moving on, let’s switch countries, this time to Turkey and Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red. Turns out this story is set in 16th-century Istanbul. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve actually visited Istanbul, even bought a carpet while there. I was also astounded by the driving skills of the motor coach drivers! So glad I wasn’t driving, let me tell ya! I’m looking forward to dipping into this Turkish tale. Will you join me?
Until next time… Happy reading!
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She lost everything but only his love can save her…
How does one recover after tragic loss demolishes your heart and soul? Meredith Reed grapples with that question every day, especially after she inherits Twin Oaks. The historic plantation is meant for a large family but hers no longer exists. She has some ideas for its future: tear it down; bulldoze it; burn it. Regardless of her incensed family and the handsome, irate estate lawyer’s objections. And despite the influence of the Lady in Blue haunting the place…
Max Chandler anticipates buying his dream home with the raise from his expected promotion after passage of the historic property preservation legislation he championed. Twin Oaks is just the sort of place he dreams of. Big and roomy, with lingering echoes of laughter and love from past generations within its very walls. Perfect. Except, perhaps, for the Civil War era ghosts in residence. They’ll have to go.
When Twin Oaks is threatened with a bulldozer, he has to fight, ignoring his growing attraction to Meredith. Her intentions go against everything he’s worked for. He has no choice but to do all in his power to stop her.
Will Meredith’s grief destroy her heart and home or will she listen to what the Lady in Blue is trying to teach her?
(Updated and revised edition; originally published in 2014 as Traces.)