From The Washington Post
Reviewed by Ron Charles:
The strange allure of Emma Darwin's debut novel, The Mathematics of Love, reflects its enigmatic title. If there's anything numerical about our affections, it's higher math than most of us can compute, like the formulas behind snowflakes or hurricanes, and a similar sort of complexity makes this story just as fascinating.
Two very different characters, separated by more than 150 years, hold our attention here. The first is Anna Ware, a rueful teenager who's already experienced enough disappointment to make her precociously cynical about matters of the heart. Her errant mother has packed her off to spend the summer of 1976 in the English countryside with an uncle at a shuttered boarding school. Of course, any young person sent to an old mansion in the English countryside is bound to discover a wardrobe with a false back, and, in this case, Anna's portal to a different world is a stash of old letters written by an early owner of the estate. These documents are faded and difficult to read, but with little else to do, Anna is gradually drawn into the life of Stephen Fairhurst, a veteran of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
If you're in a book club torn between lovers of 19th-century and modern fiction, The Mathematics of Love may be just the thing to square the circle. The bilingual dexterity of this novel is one of its several triumphs as Darwin alternates between the murky moral chaos of the 1970s and the rigid formality of the genteel class in the early 19th century. Anna and Fairhurst, living in the same space though separated by time and unimaginable social changes, are equally haunting characters, the parallels between their lives tantalizing and evocative.
Darwin, a London-based writer and photographer, portrays 15-year-old Anna with a remarkable fidelity to the odd mix of maturity and naiveté that marks modern adolescence. Having witnessed her mother's ordeals in love and endured the empty promises of horny high school boys, Anna assumes she's too wise to be shocked or seduced, but terrible family secrets rear up before long, and two charming photographers who live nearby lure her into the sexual peril of their darkroom.
Only the muted agony of Fairhurst's mysterious life could tempt us away from Anna's vulnerable summer. He's crippled as much by his physical injury as by his devotion to a brief wartime romance he can neither recapture nor relinquish. Laced through Anna's story, his sections of the novel are conveyed by a complex mixture of voices: his description of the strictly repressed life he leads after the war, his intimate letters to a young female artist and his ghastly memories of the battle that took his leg and cauterized his soul.
The pacing slackens at times during Fairhurst's long road to emotional recovery, but his intense sincerity draws us along. Thinking of another woman who obviously adores him, he writes, "I realized suddenly that I had not offered her a place in my life because that place was already filled by a presence -- a love -- so perfect that it was beyond my power, or my desire, to displace it with mere pleasure or friendship or bodily contentment."
That overwrought tone seems just the right touch for a man laboring under the weight of impeccable decorum, the kind of man who says he felt "a many-layered grief that swelled in my throat and held me silent." In contrast to the cynical age Anna struggles through, Fairhurst lives in a time when a brave war hero can write, without snickering, "We loved so perfectly that, however long we lived, we could wish for nothing more."
Struggling to understand the bizarre crises of her summer and the passionate affair she read about in Fairhurst's old letters, Anna realizes that she can't fathom the way people behave. A friend assures her, "The mathematics of love defy arithmetic." Surely that's true, but the two stories that Darwin tells here add up to something hauntingly beautiful.
Reviewed by Ron Charles
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