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Emma Darwin – The Mathematics of Love

February 22, 2010

17. The Mathematics of Love by Emma Darwin (2007)

Length: 472 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction; Literary Fiction

Started: 09 February 2010
Finished: 17 February 2010

Where did it come from? Purchased from Bookcloseouts.
Why do I have it? The title intrigued me, plus as a biology student I instantly perk up when I hear the name “Darwin.”
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 20 February 2009.

A soldier home from
war and a girl with no home
both learn love’s power.

Summary: In the first of two interweaving story lines, it is 1819 and Major Stephen Fairhurst is trying to rebuild his life as a civilian after sacrificing so much in the Napoleonic wars. He has inherited Kersey Hall, his family estate, and he soon meets Lucy Durward, a bright and opinionated young lady with whom he develops a correspondence and friendship. However, as well-matched as they are, the horrors of war will not let him be, and the secrets in his past threaten to destroy any small peace he might build for himself.

In the summer of 1976, fifteen-year-old Anna Ware has been sent by her flighty mother to stay with her uncle at Kersey, which since the time of Stephen has become a school. Anna is lonely and bored – there’s nothing much to do for a teenager who’s used to the activity of London, and the only people around to talk to are her alcoholic and mentally unstable grandmother, and Cecil, a small boy who mostly runs wild. Then Anna meets Eva and Theo, two photographers who live nearby, and their eccentric ways open Anna’s eyes to a new way of seeing the world… but that broader scope is not without its costs.

Review: I knew, from reading Emma Darwin’s A Secret Alchemy last summer, that Darwin’s writing required a substantial input of both time and attention to be worthwhile, but if you can make that investment, the payoff is more than worthwhile. I knew that, but somehow it completely slipped my mind when I picked up this book from my TBR pile. I have recently been busy and rather stressed, and just have not had the mental energy nor the three-hour-blocks of reading time that I think this book deserved. As a result this book took me forever to finish – almost three times longer than I would have predicted given its size – but not through any fault of its own.

When I was able to devote some time and energy to this book, it was absolutely lovely. It was full of things that I enjoy – historical fiction! Napoleonic wars! Intertwining storylines! 19th century courtship! Photography! All of it, too, is rendered in Darwin’s exquisite prose. She’s equally adept at evoking the horror of a battlefield and the delicate tension of a sitting room and the close atmosphere of a darkroom pungent with developer, and her tone shifts effortlessly to match her time – not always an easy feat in a book with two first-person narrators. The plot(s) and characters are equally well-done; I thought Stephen’s story in particular was excellent in the way that it slowly unfurled, carefully drawing the reader in with bits of accumulating information about what had happened to him… much like the gradual appearance of a photographic print in its chemical bath. The layers of meaning and metaphor present here are remarkable for a first novel, and Darwin’s writing is mature enough to leave them mostly below the surface, so that the reader has to uncover them for herself.

I could not see her paper, only hear the sound of her pencil – as light as the rustle of leaves at one moment and at the next as sharp and exact as a sword cut – above the calling of doves on the roof, and the trickle of water as the gardener went about his evening tasks. Her narrowed gaze flicked between my face and her paper, as a commander’s does between his map and his battlefield. At the memory the muscles round my eyes recalled the strained attention we had all paid at such moments. Then, we sought to understand what the lines and symbols would mean on the morrow in cover, obstacles, artillery range, flesh broken and blood spilt. Did Miss Durward, in observing my face, seek to understand the world that it mapped, or did she map the man which that world had formed? (p. 256)

Although the themes of Stephen’s and Anna’s stories parallel and intertwine beautifully, the actual plots are less interconnected. They are living in the same place, and Anna reads some of Stephen’s letters to Lucy, but neither of these really affect either story in a material way. There are some additional elements of a magical realism nature – Cecil and Anna having dreams that seem drawn from Stephen’s memories, Stephen catching a glimpse of Cecil in the fields around the house – that I thought were one of the weaker elements of the story. I don’t have a problem with Gothic-y ghosts and imprinted memories and different periods of time overlapping, that’s fine – I’ve read plenty of books that do that well. However, if you’re going to include things like that, I feel like you really need to commit to it and embrace it fully – which Darwin didn’t, and so the nightmares and the visions wind up not very well explained and sort of superfluous.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed this book – despite my non-existent attention span, I never wished I was reading something else, and when I was able to get into it, I was richly rewarded with a lovely story, beautifully told. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I would give this to readers of historical fiction who like their novels well-written, literary, and mature, and are willing to put some effort into their reading.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Emma Darwin’s Website
Emma Darwin’s Blog

Other Reviews: Book Escape, Care’s Online Book Club, Tales from the Reading Room, Vulpes Libris
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Had I not been there, no account, no print, no evidence of witnesses could have made me believe what I saw that day.

Cover Thoughts: I love it. It really does an excellent job encapsulating two of the best things about the book – it’s warm, and it’s layered. It’s hard to see on the computer, but in person, there are two images overlaying the pair of hands – both some subtle lacework, and some writing, as in a 19th century letter. It’s wonderfully subtle but very effective.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 5: “‘It’s Billy Kirby!’ cried a girl’s voice. ‘Billy, it’s us! You’ll not hurt ye marrahs!’” – A friend, pal, buddy, mate.
  • p. 7: “She reached the hustings and there she found him, lying all but under one of the wheels.” – the temporary platform on which candidates for the British Parliament stood when nominated and from which they addressed the electors.
  • p. 44: “Steadily the stiff stalks of wheat and barley fell to the advancing blades, and rose again as a village of stooks, standing proud on the razed ground.” – to stack sheaves of grain; form a pile of straw.
  • p. 45: “And one after another each raddled ewe received the mark of her reprieve.” – a red variety of ocher, used for marking sheep, coloring, etc.
  • p. 265: “Sometimes I think I can feel the corn in my palm, or the tilth under my feet, or I dream of riding a haycart back to the barn.” – land that is tilled or cultivated.
  • p. 340: “On this occasion, the seas were generally as moderate as Biscay ever chooses to be, and the clergyman’s unfortunate nephew suffered all the seasickness that the whole party might have expected, while the others sought to relieve the boredom with, on the one hand, anecdotes of a life spent shipping opium into China, and on the other, reflections of on the sad decline of England’s moral fibre since the introduction of the spinning jenny.” – an early spinning machine having more than one spindle, enabling a person to spin a number of yarns simultaneously.
10 Comments leave one →
  1. February 22, 2010 6:26 am

    I’m happy for you that it worked and that you enjoyed it so. AND, just wanted to add that upon first glance, the red on the cover looks like a plus sign. But I still don’t quite get the title. Obviously, I didn’t want to work too hard! I enjoyed your review.

    • February 23, 2010 8:49 am

      Care – The title makes sense to me, from the conversation between Theo and Anna about whether it’s possible to love more than one person at the same time. At least, it makes more sense to me than A Secret Alchemy did, which I don’t remember even being name-checked in that book.

  2. February 22, 2010 9:43 am

    There are some books that take greater concentration and time than others and this certainly sounds like one of those. I’d have to pick the right time to read it.

    • February 23, 2010 8:50 am

      bermudaonion – For sure… I probably should have put it aside and waited for a more appropriate mood.

  3. February 22, 2010 9:45 pm

    This sounds good, but I appreciate the warning about its needing genuine, sustained attention. Now that the weather’s nice I’ve been reading outside on weekends for hours – this should be a good book for that! And I love a good book with correspondences and two separate storylines.

    • February 23, 2010 8:51 am

      Jenny – Lucky! I’ve got a while yet before I’ll be able to get any porch-reading in. I did read large chunks of A Secret Alchemy on my porch swing last summer, though, so I can absolutely recommend Emma Darwin for those purposes.

  4. March 1, 2010 2:55 am

    I just don’t have time for this one right now, but I’ll mark it for future reading.

  5. DanaB permalink
    March 21, 2010 7:12 am

    I love a good review that not only highlights the book, but gives a fellow reader your take on the ‘effort’ best served the book!
    It’s on my list–thanks :)


  6. winter91 permalink
    April 2, 2010 10:58 am

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, right up until the end where I was left a little confused. I found that the paragraphs which ended each chapter were confusing, indefinitely including the last one. I wondered what your take on that was? Did Fairhurst end up living happily ever after with Lucy and Idoia? And also, the family relationship between Anna and Fairhurst, what did you interpret this to be? I’m intreagued to hear somebody elses response to this!


  1. Review The Mathematics of Love « Care's Online Book Club

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