ADA LANGTON The Art of Preserving Love. Reviewed by Kim Kelly
Ada Langton’s The Art of Preserving Love is a carefully controlled, rambling rose bush of a tale.
From the opening chapter title of this delightful debut, it’s clear this is historical fiction told with warmth and a hint of mischief:
Early in the morning of Sunday, 5 November 1905, in Ballarat, when the sun has just woken, wiping sleep from its eyes.
And the novel’s first lines confirm it:
Edie had a plan. She’d written it in her notebook and once something was written in her notebook, Edie knew it would happen. The letters had curved and spun on the paper as she wrote, as if they were threading themselves into the ordinary moments of life, quietly breathing their magic and putting things into place while no one was looking.
What follows is a carefully controlled, rambling rose bush of a tale spanning 19 years, and several lives and love stories, from 1905 to 1924. Despite its somewhat chocolate-boxy cover, though, The Art of Preserving Love is no typical romance. More concerned with waiting and learning the lessons of patience than it is with passion, this novel is a maze of intriguing teasers strung out with the mad sort of logic abiding desire brings.
But this is also a novel about grief: the way loss, trauma and disappointment take their own sweet time with us before our broken hearts are ready to love again. That Langton manages to pull this off without a mawkish note is a remarkable achievement. This is less a story about the healing of wounds as it is an exploration of how those wounds shape us.
Pieced together through the perspectives of its many players – the central lovers, Edie Cottingham and Theo Hooley; Edie’s father, Paul, her baby sister, Grace, and housemaid, Beth; Theo’s mother, Lilly, and fabulously random Royal Flying Corps pilot, Reuben Rosenberg, just to mention the main characters – the narrative structure allows for continual shifts in focus, the turns in the story always lively and surprising. This novel is anything but predictable, except perhaps in its satisfying conclusion, and even then we don’t get there by any expected route. Indeed, there is a delicious romantic twist midway that’s beautifully handled, and poignantly real.
Those who prefer their romances told straight might be a little bamboozled by the relentless playfulness, and there is a staged quality to the writing that holds the characters at quite a remove at times. Langton’s is a brightly coloured cartoon style that’s excellent for drawing the many foibles of small-town Australia, here shovelled into Edwardian tight-lacing, and for allowing the unexpected to burst out of it – readers who appreciate Rosalie Ham’s deft hand at plucking out the absurd from the ordinary will almost certainly love this, too.
Historical fiction purists might have a couple of nits to pick in respect of anachronisms – the prose is peppered with expressions that were perhaps unlikely to be used by middle-class Australian characters of the period. And those looking for an epic, broad-brush view of the past might need to adjust their expectations: Langton is drawn to the smaller details, from the frustrating realities of early telephone communication, to the first sharp spasms of trench-borne cholera. Those who enjoy slipping into and out of rabbit holes of historical observation will relish this ride, throughout which the weather has as much catalytic bearing on the story as a world war. The announcement of the outbreak of global hostilities, so often a grave, bass note in any Australian fiction, concludes in this one with, ‘And the tennis went on and Australia beat England three to two.’ Wonderful!
This reader did yearn for more detail on character motivations, though, particularly those of the men in the story. For example, Theo’s off-stage experiences in the Boer War, which are often referred to, are never explained in a way that might show us how they really affected him. Similarly, the staunch socialism of Edie’s father Paul – a wealthy lawyer – isn’t explained in a way that shows us where his conviction has come from. But then, this is a novel of wondering, rather than answers. It’s definitely an anti-romantic antidote to the usual run of war romances. There is nothing glorifying or heroic or even vaguely gallant in any of Theo’s experiences of war in Africa or, later, at Gallipoli.
There are rich threads of Australian labour and feminist history woven into the story, too, with Vida Goldstein and Adela Pankhurst playing cameos, and some political points are nicely made, such as this from Paul to the parish priest:
‘We have, Reverend, a choice between free trade and protectionism; one dependent on chance, the other on care. Do you leave the wellbeing of your flock to chance, or do you care for it?’
But the moral centre of the story does come mainly from this privileged, bourgeois lawyer, and some readers might wonder that the working-class characters in the story – most obviously the gold miners of Ballarat – seem a little lacking in their own agency. That’s not to say the middle class aren’t held to any scrutiny; Langton’s scalpel-witted portraiture of the ignorance and arrogance of some in the medical profession, for instance, will have readers asking what’s really changed there in 100 years.
However, it’s the language – and Langton’s obvious joy in using it – that is the novel’s best and brightest distinction. We’re treated to some exquisite imagery, from the most incidental of details:
‘The windows cast rainbow beams that bounced off the walls, lighting the entranceway like children’s wishes.’
To haunting descriptions of the mining life:
The mines meandered under the houses and streets of the town, twisting this way and that under the hills and paddocks and under the great Town Hall clock itself. Countless icy tunnels of dank suffocating air that swallowed men and boys in the dark mornings considered whether or not to spit them back up in the afternoons.
The effect of a mother’s love:
She didn’t have one harsh edge to make his words bounce back at him; his words soaked into her motherly softness and found a place to belong.
And the gloriousness of sexual awakening:
Her body was smooth and fresh and the sun’s gentle touch on her skin warmed her just the right amount, making her feel golden and immortal.
This is a luxuriantly sprawling novel, but the whole is held firmly together by love, and love of all kinds – the love that exists within families and friendships, as well as romantic love, in all its shades, too. Langton’s is an ideal that shows each lover’s bond is unique, and while to the outsider it might seem plain odd, to the lover, the bond is perfect and inescapable.
It’s a love that can drive a man to deliver a rose every Sunday to a woman he can’t kiss.
And, yes, the closing lines of the novel are as lovely as those that open it.
Whimsical, intelligent and blossoming everywhere with all kinds of emotional honesty, The Art of Preserving Love is by far the loveliest and most inventive contribution to Australian-flavoured romantic fiction this reader has read in quite some time.
Kim Kelly is the author of seven novels, including the acclaimed Wild Chicory and The Blue Mile. Her latest novel, Lady Bird & The Fox, will be published in April 2018. Find out more about Kim at kimkellyauthor.com
Ada Langton The Art of Preserving Love Mira 2018 PB 433pp $29.99
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