The Mathematics of Love by Emma Darwin

I enjoyed reading Letters of a Portuguese Nun: Uncovering the Mystery Behind a 17th Century Forbidden Love by Myriam Cyr (click here to read my other entries about this book).

Cyr writes that the Portuguese Letters have inspired writers and lovers for hundreds of years and I wonder if Emma Darwin was also inspired by them when she wrote her debut novel The Mathematics of Love.

The Mathematics of Love is the story of both a veteran of the Napoleonic wars (and the Battle of Waterloo) named Stephen Fairhurst (told with letters and memoirs) and of a teenager, Anna Jocelyn Ware, who moves into the soldier’s former home in the mid-1970s (told in first-person narrative).

If you haven’t read The Mathematics of Love, you may not understand why reading Letters of a Portuguese Nun made me think of this novel and it’s such a complex story that I can’t explain it without giving away the plot.

It starts off a bit slow but it’s really quite clever. Darwin brilliantly writes with two distinct voices and creates an eloquent, intelligent, and beautiful historical novel.

I liked how Darwin was able to write her great-great-great grandfather Robert Darwin (who married Susannah Wedgwood, brother of Thomas Wedgwood, the pioneer of photography) into the novel; makes perfect sense since she uses photography as a metaphoric device to tell these parallel stories.

If you’re reading it for a book club, you may want to read these discussion questions from the publisher (also published on the author’s website here):

  1. Sexual morality is a key theme in The Mathematics of Love. Discuss morality in the context of the relationships between Anna/Theo, Eva/Theo, Anna/Eva, Stephen/Catalina and Stephen/Lucy.
  2. How does war change the characters in The Mathematics of Love ?
  3. “I was the plain, pale nothing, pressed into a thin strip between their lives. And it wasn’t enough for me. I knew that now.” (p. 394) How does Anna change during the course of the novel?
  4. Discuss the role of art, photography and voyeurism within The Mathematics of Love.
  5. How do memories affect the characters within this novel? What made Stephen able to move on from painful memories and Belle unable to do so?
  6. How do the two ‘lost boys’ work within the story?
  7. “I’ve never been bothered about relations and things.” (p. 404) Discuss the role of family within The Mathematics of Love.
  8. What did you think of the ending? Would you have liked it to end differently?
  9. What other books would you compare this to? What books would you recommend to other readers who have enjoyed this book?
  10. How would this novel have been different if Darwin had chosen to focus entirely on one time period, rather than move the narrative between 1819 and 1976?

Click here to read the first chapter of The Mathematics of Love or click here to read Susann Cokal’s review titled “Housemates” published March 4, 2007 in the New York Times.

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