Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Sensibility overwhelms Rebecca Connell's first novel "The Art of Losing"

Europa Editions

First love. Mad love. Love at sight.
Love that’s so impulsive, so addictive, it submerges self-control. 
Such is the love found and lost in The Art of Losing, a strong, youthful novel by Rebecca Connell that kept my interest, but not my passion.
Louise Knight lost her mother as a child. Now in her early 20s she pursues the man she blames for her mother’s fatal accident, Nicholas Steiner, her mother’s former lover.  She takes on her mother’s name, Lydia, and stalks him. Her quest is vague. She wants to fill in the missing pieces of the tragedy that seemingly ruined her life; revenge would also be nice. She begins by following him, then by chance meets his son, Adam who provides her with a means to get closer. She cons Adam into inviting her home for pre-holidays and moves in with him, his mother, Naomi and Nicholas.
Told in alternate chapters by Louise in present time and Nicholas, two decades earlier, the novel depicts an affair and its consequences.
Repeatedly Nicholas, Lydia and later Louise (as Lydia) and Adam act before they think or think before they act, then do whatever impulse dictates anyway.  Sometimes they struggle with conflicting impulses before giving in to the worst possible choice. The heat of the moment uncouples acts from consequences. Time and knowledge recouple them disastrously.
Sensibility, that state of heightened nerves and delicate perceptions, is Nicholas’s topic when Louise first hears him lecture. He states: “But sensibility was once the encapsulation of the finest feelings of which man was capable. An acute sensitivity to emotion, significance, mortality, all the things that still surround us in modern society but which are more often forced underground than brought out into the open. “
Surprise! Sensibility is also Connell’s theme. While she effectively depicts the Geiger counter of nervous responsiveness in several characters, she overdoes it. Sympathetic nervous systems are ramped up. Body parts are talking so nosily they almost overwhelm systems.  A few examples: Nicholas: “When I saw her, my body went into overdrive, blood pulsing through me and adrenalin spiking my skin, making me feel light headed and delirious.” (p.44)
Lydia (Louise) cries or pukes in reaction to encounters.
“Lydia can’t help her eyes from drifting around the room, searching for Adam.” (p. 67)
Nicolas; “Part of me knew it was a bad decision, but I gave myself no time to talk myself out of it.” (p 96) 
“Even as she considers the possibility, her feet have taken on a life of their own." (p. 124)
“Lydia lingers, half wanting Naomi to say something more, to delay her from going upstairs.”(p. 167) 
And on, and on.
Enough sensibility! I found myself desperately wanting a grown up to step in and shake some sense into these people. When the only one available, Louise’s father Martin does, it’s too little, too late.
Then too, plausibility is strained and the plot is somewhat predictable. I stop mid chapter distracted with questions: why doesn’t anyone set some boundaries or act on suspicions?  How coincidental that Louise is asked to leave her apartment at just the right moment. Two thirds of the way through the book, I wake after a night’s sleep and have figured out the book’s secret. I often sleep on books after finishing them, and wake to discover connections I hadn’t made while reading, marveling at subtle structures. This was different; the thrill of the thriller was gone; the drama of the psychodrama lessened. 
Connell takes her title from part of the repeated line – “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” in Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle  “One Art.”  The poem, which proves the line glib and untrue, is about maintaining composure despite losing the love of one’s life; its structure grasps control until its last line lets go in the inevitable, unavoidable disaster of grief. In it, art and emotion unite.
Connell’s book does not display that same control. Like her characters, she lacks the maturity, subtlety and restraint that come with time and practice. The art of writing’s difficult to master. She’s young. Her bio says she graduated from Oxford University in 2001, and I suspect younger readers, particularly those in the throes or aftermath of first love, might connect to the work quite differently than I do. I’d read her again. She’s already got ability and sensibility; with time and mastery, they may combine seamlessly into one art.

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