“I believe that it’s only possible to fall in love once, don’t you? To think otherwise makes no logical sense. Why would anyone put themselves in such a position twice?”
The novel The Art of Losing is the tale of an affair. The title implies that there’s a sort of skill involved in ‘moving on’ –in this case, moving on involves the end of the affair and the death of a young woman. The Art of Losing explores how two people, held in a perpetual state of grief, are unable to effectively acknowledge their loss.
The tale begins in the present with a young girl named Louise who moves to Oxford to more or less stalk Nicholas, the man she holds responsible for her mother’s death years earlier. Louise calls herself by her mother’s name, Lydia, and she manages to manipulate her way into Nicholas’s household by striking up a friendship with his son.
Books about affairs aren’t exactly rare, but it’s the structure of this novel that gives the story its searing intensity. The Art of Losing is an excellently-crafted novel which goes back and forth in time switching narration between Louise and Nicholas. Sections of the novel cover three distinct periods of time:
- 2007: the present with Louise worming her way into Nicholas’s life.
- 1983: the beginning of the affair that occurred decades earlier between Nicholas and Lydia
- 1989: when Nicholas and Lydia meet again
I have a fascination for novels in which one of the main characters is NOT there, and I am always impressed when that dead or missing character leaves permanent traces on the lives of those left behind. Lydia is dead when the novel begins, but she’s brought to life through Nicholas’s vivid narration. Lydia doesn’t get to tell her story (or even a version of it), and that’s significant to the novel’s structure. We see her through the eyes of her lover Nicholas and much later through her daughter, Louise. Yet just what Lydia is really thinking and just what motivates her is murky. Lydia remains a cipher and perhaps that explains why two people are still obsessed with her years after her death.
Like all affairs, the affair between Nicholas and Lydia has a trajectory. The year is 1983 and at that time Nicholas is a single teacher. Through his narration, he details seeing Lydia for the first time along with his subsequent disappointment when he learns she’s married to a colleague. He’s smitten (no other word for it), and the fact that she’s married doesn’t deter him. He rather calculating strikes up a friendship with Lydia’s much older, kind and gentle, mild-mannered husband, fellow teacher Martin Knight.
Most affairs eventually burn out or they evolve into something else, and the affair between Nicholas and Lydia is no exception. The relationship begins with several delicate manoeuvres as Nicholas and Lydia ‘test’ each other’s intentions before launching into the risks of an affair. The sections narrated by Nicholas are incredibly good. Nicholas’s voice is strong, clear and pitiless when it comes to his self-analysis. It’s as if within these pages he voices the feelings and the doubts he is unable to discuss with anyone else, and consequently Nicholas’s sections read with naked honesty and gut-wrenching immediacy. His relationship with Lydia burns with intense passion, and there’s more than an edge of obsession. At the same time, the relationship isn’t all positive. There are times when Nicholas resents Lydia, and the submerged emotions and resentments ultimately take a toll.
Years later, Nicholas now married to Naomi and a father, meets Lydia once again. Nicholas’s marriage is going through a rocky period; he is torn between his desire for Lydia and his loyalty to his wife & child. Lydia seems to be an addiction for Nicholas, and his feelings vacillate radically between the two women in his life. This isn’t just the story of an affair; this is also the story of two marriages.
Here’s Nicholas putting more effort into his stale marriage after the birth of his son:
It took me another week or so to work out that it was what I had always thought of as empty gestures that she wanted, rather than actions. I took to buying a weekly bunch of flowers, the odd box of chocolates. I left little notes on the bathroom mirror when I left for work. I sometimes called her from the faculty telephone at lunchtimes to check how she was getting on with Adam. All this went down wonderfully. Before long the adult equivalents of Adam’s contented gurgling and shrieks of joy were coming my way more frequently than I could remember in years.
All of Nicholas’s “efforts” at his marriage, however, serve only to make Nicholas feel increasingly “detached.” He feels “like an actor playing out the part of the perfect husband.” Nicholas’s sections serve as a road map to the finite difficulties and complications of a seemingly typical marriage, and his memories evoke the age-old questions behind infidelity: does one partner have to be ‘unhappy’ to ‘stray’ and is it possible for one person in a marriage to be happy while the other is bitterly unhappy? The marriages here are impenetrable to outsiders (even the participants don’t have the full facts or really understand the relationships), but the affair seems to be a sticky web from which neither Nicholas nor Lydia can escape:
“Well, we can stop it, if you like,” she said, so quietly that I could barely hear her. The words hung in the air between us, and for a moment I thought, yes, this thing has run its course. Leave it now, and maybe you can paper over the cracks and it’ll be as if it was never there. I knew I was fooling myself. In another moment I was at her side, putting my arms around her shaking shoulders.
The sections with Louise as an adult and now stalking Nicholas were not as strong. I found this a bit curious at first but concluded that Louise is the device through which the wonderful story comes to light. It’s through her creation (and appearance in the novel) that events in the past are brought back to the surface. On the other hand, Lydia, who’s only seen through the eyes of the people who love her, remains fascinating and mysterious, and I found myself rereading key passages trying to decipher her cryptic statements to Nicholas.
This is author Rebecca Connell’s first book. So that means there must be more to come….