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(Un)disclosed desires and collateral damages

November 28, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Art of Losing, by Rebecca Connell.

Warning: this is an “after reading” review, full of spoilers. For a “before reading” review and a summary of the story, read Guy’s post here.

Now that you’ve read The Art of Losing or decided you wouldn’t, here are the thoughts I wanted to share about it.

The title. The Art of Losing sounds like the sequel of The Art of Love. (If interested, I reviewed it here.). Ovid tells the reader how to seduce and love. Rebecca Connell shows the consequences of The Art of Love. I think ‘losing’ can be taken in two different ways. On the one hand, it can relate to how lovers and spouses move on after an affair. But in this case, the loss is also that of a mother and the unhealed wound it left in Louise. So, it’s not just about moving on for the lovers but for their families too. On the other hand, “Losing” is also used for games. Everybody lost something in this fool’s game as all the protagonists are somehow impacted by the affair between Lydia and Nicholas. Only Adam seems rather unscathed: he only loses a girl-friend, but his relationship is too recent to have created a strong bond. No one tells him the truth.

As Guy pointed it, the construction of this novel is well thought and powerful. The alternate voices of Lydia/Louise and of Nicholas give life to the story. Lydia’s voice is absent and it leaves huge holes in the picture. She’s dead but she could have been there through a diary or letters. Her ghostly presence hovers upon the characters. The reader only perceive her through Louise’s and especially Nicholas’ eyes. She never gets a chance to explain her choices and this kills Nicholas and haunts Louise. No one knows why she never left Martin and worse, if she committed suicide or if her death was an accident.

I thought the style a little weak. I’ve read this book in English, almost as fast as I would have read a French novel and I didn’t need the dictionary that much. This is not a good sign for the writer. I thought the first chapter describing the meeting between Louise/Lydia and Adam really cheap romance. Afterwards, I saw it as a re-play of Nicholas and Lydia’s first meeting. I agree with Guy, Nicholas’ voice is more convincing that of Louise. Rebecca Connell found the right tone for Nicholas but struggled to find Louise. Perhaps this is not a flaw in the writing but on the contrary a brilliant success: as Louise/Lydia doesn’t know exactly who she is, her character is blurred. The shift between the persons who narrate the story is well-used. Louise’s narrative is in the first person when she is herself and in the third person when she’s using Lydia’s name, a way to show she’s playing a role.

My analysis is that every grown-up has a responsibility in the disaster of Lydia’s death and Louise’s damaged childhood: the lovers for their affair, the spouses for knowing it and looking elsewhere.

Nicholas looks like a predator in the beginning. It was love at first sight. He wanted Lydia. “I knew I could take her away from him. I did love her, I did want her, and in that moment, as thereafter, I made no apology for it. Not to anyone”.  I’ve always thought English common expressions as ‘I want you’ or ‘You belong to me’ very possessive and aggressive. French is smoother and rather asks permission. The reader is led to thinking that Nicholas genuinely loved Lydia: “I felt the same sensation that had assaulted me the very first time I had seen her – that sense of homecoming, that whether I liked it or not, this was where I was meant to be.” To me, love stories are more due to chance than fate. I’m not convinced by the theme of “soul mates”, “kindred spirits” and associated Platonic idea of a lost half waiting for each of us somewhere.

Lydia is a mystery. No one will ever know why she stayed with Martin in 1983, especially since she was pregnant. Fear? Laziness? Father vs Lover complex? Martin is reassuring, a father figure, older, safe. Nicholas is the passion, the unknown. Or did she want to keep her great love intact, untouched by everyday life routine? Did she like and need the thrill of the secret rendezvous? Her relationship with Nicholas remains forever on the ‘lover’ stage. They never had to change bedsheets full of vomit at 3 am because their child had a stomach flu. (If anyone knows how to remain sexy after such a night, please e-mail me the recipe.) Their love was never at risk to be blown away by mundane everyday life details and Nicholas knows it:

For a moment I tried to imagine living with Lydia, our relationship stripped of all its secrecy and danger: saw us sitting cosily round the breakfast table, kissing and holding hands in public, introducing each other at parties. I had no idea whether these things would drain the passion steadily away from us, the way that I now saw they had done with me and Naomi.”

At first, Martin and Naomi appear to be the victims. Martin loved Louise like a dog his master. “His face had taken on the adoring spaniel look that was generally reserved for Lydia.” He put her on her pedestal. But is he really innocent in this disaster? He knew Louise was not his daughter. How did he find out? Fertility tests, I presume. When the two couples meet in 1989, Lydia tells Naomi they encounter difficulties to have another child. Lydia can bear a child. Martin is a scientist, he didn’t need much to acknowledge the obvious. Then, if he knew, why did he let the second affair go on? I suspect he may have hoped that the second affair would end as the first, a pregnancy. Did he use Nicholas to have another child?

I don’t understand Naomi. Why did she stay? For Adam? Every situation is different and it is hard to tell what is the best for children. I think that parents should not sacrifice too much of their own lives for their child. When the child realises the price paid for his sake, what a burden to bear! It’s a liability that can hardly be repaid. Is this child free to do what he wants with his life if he has such a debt? Afterwards, I wonder if Lydia’s death was not a chance for Naomi. It prevented Nicholas from leaving her and from having another affair. If Lydia had lived, he may have grown tired of her and other women may have replaced her. Thanks to Lydia’s death, Nicholas has been faithful to Naomi, at least physically.

This novel makes me think of a well crafted tragedy or a thriller in disguise. The writer leaves clues for the reader everywhere. For example, I had guessed that Louise was Nicholas’ daughter. I only did the maths, cross-referenced details when I was reading, without thinking. So, Louise’s relationship with Adam is genetically an incest. Can this be considered as an incest as they were not brought up together? In the last chapter, what I thought certain crumbled into doubt. When Louise dressed as her mother attends Nicholas’ lecture, men look at her with lust. Did Nicholas imagine it was love he was feeling when it was only lust? To discover that Martin knew that Louise was not his daughter made me reconsider my vision of him.

The Art of Losing raises a whirlwind of questions. About love. About marriage. About divorce and children. About secrets and lies. In the end, the underlying question is: “What it is to be in love?”. It seems to depend on where your ‘love-area’ is located in your body: in your brain, in your heart, on the top of your thighs. Maybe a happy, long-lasting, well-balanced relationship is when the two persons have their ‘love-area’ at the same place in their body. They have a better chance that their spouse instinctively gives them what they need. They don’t expect things they’ll never get.

  1. November 28, 2010 at 11:50 pm

    You raise some excellent points. The way the novel’s structure makes us reconsider Martin, for example. At first he looks like one of the innocent parties, but then it turns out he isn’t. If he knew about the affair, it makes the second phase of the affair much murkier, and as you say, was Nicholas used as a sperm donor?

    I hadn’t thought about the element of mystery, but you are right. I found myself thinking about Lydia one way and then another. What if she was just NUTS?

    I found it very interesting that Naomi seemed to be a good choice for Nicholas in so many ways. He didn’t really seem to ackowledge that, but as you say would the passion of the affair have died under the weight of everyday triviality?

    I, too, guessed that Louise was Nicholas’s child–right from the birthday cake scene. It was intriguing to see Nicholas ‘wake up’ to that knowledge when it screamed to the reader.

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    • November 29, 2010 at 12:10 am

      Did I talk about the issues you wanted my opinion about ?

      I think the adults are more machiavelic that they seem to be at first sight. Do you think Nicholas loved Lydia (and vice-versa) or was it just sex ?

      I hadn’t thought of Lydia as nuts but that’s a possibility. The “you cannot escape me” (or something like that) the day she died comforts your idea. Why didn’t she leave Martin when there were just the two of them is something I don’t understand.

      Naomi is a half-victim too. She could have done better than this life with a man who thought himself in love with someone else. Only half a victim as, being an adult, she had the possibility to leave.

      Only children are full-victims in these cases, because they have no other choice than go where the adults tell them to, when they don’t hold them hostages. In the end, Louise, who was the one the adults wanted to protect — so they said to themselves — is the only innocent who gets really hurt.

      I also think that these men are machos. They consider their wives as prizes. They are proud to have married such beautiful and charming women. Martin acknowledges he needed someone to take care of his household. He wouldn’t have wanted to marry someone who shared his passion for science. Both Martin and Nicholas want wives with more breasts than brains. And Adam seems to follow the same path.

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  2. November 29, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    Yes, these were the issues I thought about. I too wondered if Nicholas truly loved Lydia. The ‘first’ affair was going stale when she just disappeared, and I think that the relationship wasn’t able to die a natural death. If she’d stuck around, they would have either run off together or broken up. I don’t think Lydia was interested in running off with Nicholas.

    It’s almost as if it was a case of the cliched ‘fatal attraction.’ Nicholas and Lydia aren’t exactly thrilled to see each other again, but that old magnet attraction is there.

    I thought that Naomi was fundamentally a much better choice for Nicholas. He certainly benefited from the relationship.

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    • November 29, 2010 at 5:05 pm

      I think you’re right: Lydia’s disappearance crystallized the relationship. When I was reading, I was thinking about two other love stories:
      – The one between the Princess of Clèves and the Duc de Nemours, but this one stayed on the platonic stage. This is a book I didn’t understand as a teenager but understood later.
      – The one between Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood in The Bridges in Madison Country, typical from the ‘I can’t leave my children’ syndrome.

      In both cases, in not indulging themselves in the relationship, they contributed to keep it pure, fresh and beautiful. A “better have romantic memories than imperfect present” attitude.

      I also think the issue of “what does it mean to be in love” is important in this book. It opens with Nicholas’ lecture on sensibility. It’s in his introspections. I’ve seen French Film, btw, and Nicholas’ questioning about his relationship with Lydia and his marriage with Naomi echoed with the film.

      What do you think of this little experiment of “group reading”?

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  3. November 29, 2010 at 9:02 pm

    Your responses added to my understanding of the novel (and why I liked it so much). I didn’t, for example, even think about the mystery element, and of course this was why the book is such a page turner.

    I see that some bloggers form–what would you say–reading groups. A novel will be selected and then some (not necessarily) all of the bloggers join in the readathon.

    One thing on the book: I find Lydia’s character fascinating. Partly because she wasn’t there, of course, to explain her choices. It’s interesting to note how dynamic she was–the impact she had on the lives of the other characters. She left a mess behind her and the others got to mop up.

    Another thing about Louise: I too found her character weaker and decided she was created for the novel’s structure and as a crowbar to pry open the past. In retrospect, I liked the way she wormed her way into Nicholas’s life as this creates a parallel with the way he wormed his way into Lydia and Martin’s life. He intentionally set out to seduce her (there’s that word again), by befriending her husband. So there’s that parallel.

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    • November 29, 2010 at 10:59 pm

      I don’t think I would have discovered that much about this novel if I hadn’t had to write a post about it or without the discussion we’re having now. I’m newer than you at blogging and it’s really a nourishment. I appreciate the time I spend analysing and thinking about what I’ve just read and going further through the comments I receive (mostly from you and Max). It’s worth the time I spend in dictionaries and in translations.

      It’s nice to have read this book at the same time, we both have the details in mind and the discussion is interesting but I don’t think I could belong to an organized group. The idea of reading on demand with a schedule bothers me.

      About the mystery side. At a moment, Louise’s hatred for Nicholas is such and she seems so unbalanced that I thought it would end up with Louise murdering Nicholas and killing herself, or something like that. Louise manipulating Nicholas after he manipulated Martin sounds like a revenge. At a moment, I also wondered if Nicholas was not attracted to her as he had been to Lydia. I expected something more tragic that this eventually rather happy ending.

      Lydia is the ‘femme fatale’ of the story. I too think she’s a fascinating character. She is far from innocent, even amoral. Was it necessary for her to befriend with Naomi? (Remember, they spend shopping afternoons together.) Instead of ‘just’ betraying Martin, she also betrays Naomi. She reminds me of Greek mythology, these tragedies where the events cannot NOT happen. She’s a siren. Isn’t there a character in Shakespeare that creates a mess like Lydia does? In A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Have you ever read Corneille or Racine? Their plays are about a passionate characters torn between passion and duty. There is something about these tragedies in this book.

      Something else. I truly respect your boundaries and I shall not mention this again, but it’s funny to watch you skilfully tiptoe around subjects you’re uncomfortable with.

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  4. November 30, 2010 at 6:31 am

    I’m not sure how well the internet reading group thing works out–probably well for some and not for others, I’d guess. Perhaps it takes a certain organisational skill, I don’t know…but it’s interesting to see it on other people’s blogs.

    Shakespeare is not my strong point (thanks to all those boring classes). No I have not read either Corneille or Racine. Shameful I know.

    Yes blogging does make one stretch, and I suppose that’s one of the points of engaging in it.

    Another word on Lydia. I think the friendship between the two women operated to make the affair easier and facilitated more meetings.

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    • November 30, 2010 at 9:13 am

      Racine and Corneille are more difficult to read than Shakespeare, I think. The best way is still to watch the plays. Not the easiest thing to do in America. If you decide to read one, get a dual edition. I have some for Shakespeare, it’s a good compromise to see the poetry of the original text and have immediate translation. Talking about theatre. I saw a play the other day I believe you would have loved. It’s called Les 39 marches. It’s based on Hitchock movies but in a funny way. It was marvellous.

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  5. December 2, 2010 at 7:37 pm

    I agree re: watching plays rather than reading them. Reading them often takes the life out of the drama.

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  1. December 8, 2010 at 11:47 pm

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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