Math is Hard
Firstly, there’s that title. The Mathematics of Love. It sits there, pendulant with meaning, or the meaningful lack thereof; signaling, in any case, that although this is to be a story of romance, of love in some of its many splendid forms, it will be something to be taken seriously, to be taken notice of. Because, after all, math is hard. And as we all know, it isn’t literature if it isn’t hard. One can’t read this book by its cover—an image of a tastefully nude woman’s back layered over with flowing cursive handwriting on old-looking paper, all very high-end cosmetics-ad-looking—but one can sure read it by its title.
Author Emma Darwin has smart genes, to be sure, being a great great granddaughter of that Darwin, but she doesn’t deploy them well. Her novel sets up your standard (these days, anyway) bifurcated story, where characters living centuries apart but in roughly similar geographic confines are connected by circumstance and coincidence. The twin stories certainly start out with more than enough merit to flesh out a decent novel, even if they are both eventually hijacked by unfortunately rote melodrama.
The first and most interesting of these stories is the period one, executed in a thoughtfully arch manner (some novelists today making an art of mimicking the epistolary style of years gone by) that takes until near the end of the book to finally smother its protagonist. Maj. Stephen Fairhurst is a British army veteran of the Napoleonic Wars who, in 1819, has returned to England to lay claim to Kersey, a largish home in the country left to him by a recently deceased relative. Having failed to win the hand in marriage of one Hetty Durward (a lady of some means and beauty who makes no secret of her disgust at the circumstance of his leg, mangled in the war), Fairhurst makes do with the friendship and correspondence of Hetty’s sister Lucy. A bright, independent, and rather harshly honest artist, Lucy pumps Fairhurst relentlessly for more details of the battles he took part in, as research for her art. Fairhurst’s letters, interleaved between accounts of his lonely life, are artfully rendered and beautifully honest—quite a bit more so than the characters themselves (Fairhurst being your standard taciturn vet with a deep well of poetic despair just waiting to be unlocked by the right woman, and Lucy a by-the-numbers spunky free spirit straight from Austen).
Of a different sort entirely is the novel’s companion story, in which Anna Ware, a 15-year-old girl, has been dumped off with relatives in the countryside for the summer by her man-crazy mess of a mother. A borderline discipline case who’s already quite comfortable with sex and drinking, Anna still comes off as more mature than her mother, who’s always running off after another dissolute boyfriend (now she’s in Spain with him on some foolhardy business venture). Stuck in a small town in a massive old house—a onetime school that used to be a royal manor of sorts—with her odd uncle, drunk grandmother and a practically feral young boy who seems to belong to nobody, Anna is on the verge of despair when she happens to run into Theo and Eva. A beautiful fashion photo spread of a couple, nomadic photographers from different ends of Europe who’ve briefly taken up residence in the countryside, the two practically adopt Anna, eventually hiring her as an assistant. The passages following Anna as she loops in a lonely fashion around the big old house trying to kill her boredom have the edge of a smart adolescent, but they’re too quickly shunted aside to make room for a rather foolish third-act development with Theo and Eva.
Darwin’s writing is precise, though overly proper, as though it had been put through successive layers of editing and had most of its idiosyncrasies washed out of it. She has a better command of Fairhurst’s wounded veteran’s voice, and could have made a book out of his story alone, even with her lamentable need to hurl him into a romantic windstorm involving eventually three or more women. By contrast, Anna’s story reads undeveloped, and somewhat schematic, as though simply filling in the gaps before getting back to Fairhurst. Darwin’s attempts to have the two storylines echo off each other backfire more often than they help, weighting down the narrative instead of enhancing it, and before long the book as a whole has fallen into predictable melodramatic mush. What The Mathematics of Love proves, in the end, is that even an elaborate structure and well-detailed historical accuracy can’t make up for a critical lack of imagination, or a bad title.