"I like to think of you reading my small tales aloud this evening," Major Stephen Fairhurst tells the beautiful young artist Lucy Durward in Emma Darwin's stunning debut novel The Mathematics of Love. This expression appears to be a simple dedication of trust and encapsulates much of what Fairhurst has been feeling over the years.
It is 1819, and Stephen is ensconced in the relative peace of Kersey Hall in rural Suffolk nursing his war wounds after losing a leg in the Battle of Waterloo. Tranquility, however, proves to be temporary when he gets caught up in the Corn Law riots and unwittingly makes the acquaintance of a Mrs. Greenshaw when he rescues her son from certain death on the battlefield.
Rebuffed as a marriage suitor, Stephen travels to Brussels where he continues to correspond with her sister, Lucy, who is eager to learn all about Waterloo. As their friendship gradually unfolds, Stephen's candid letters steadily illuminate a lost Spanish love, a woman who goes by the name of Catalina whom he abandoned in Spain after the
As Stephen's spirits are weighed down by a wintry melancholy, the young, dispirited teenager Anna Ware arrives at Kersey Hall. It is now 1976, and Anna has just been unceremoniously dumped at the manor house – now an obsolete boarding school - while her mother goes on holiday in the Costa del Sol with her latest boyfriend.
Placed in the care of her strange Uncle Ray, Anna also learns that her drunken and hideously cruel
grandmother is now staying, along with an almost feral and horribly abused boy called Cecil. Anna is left alone in a place where there is little solace and much despair. Lonely, she reaches out to the companionship of two artistic neighbors, Eva and Theo.
Both are accomplished photographers, and both have a very modern view of sex, marriage and relationships. Anna has a stubborn spirit and a generous heart, and as she awakens to the world of sex and art through her friendship with Theo, she also reaches through the world of the living into the dead when she acquires Stephen's letters.
It is through Stephen's correspondence to Lucy all those years ago that a connection is made.
As these two collide, Anna comes to recognize that Stephen's sadness "makes her own ache of sadness tighten." While Stephen becomes ever more reliant on Lucy to help "purge the silent oppression of his memories," Anna finds herself becoming unavoidably linked to Kersey's past.
Moving effortlessly between the two time periods, Darwin writes with flashes of great insight, threading her duel narratives together with the themes of art and photography. Lucy is the avid sketcher who inspires Stephen to reconnect with Catalina, while Theo is the accomplished photographer who motivates Anna to document the world around her.
The Mathematics of Love is a tenderly rendered book, deeply sensual in the contemporary passages yet also austere in its depiction of nineteenth-century social propriety. The novel has all the restrained weaving of the elements: the horrors of war, the ache of first love, the untamed winds of passion, and the intrinsic complications that come with sexual fidelity.
Art obviously plays an important part in the novel, with the drawings of Lucy and the photos of Anna and Theo almost acting like a looking glass, so that the past is laid over the future and the future is laid over the past. This view is astonishingly real as the unsuspecting passions of these two very different people are made to unwittingly collide beyond the realms of time.