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The Quarterly Conversation: "So fast paced, so dishy, so full of baroque details."

Date: Mar 7 2011

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Reviewed by Monica McFawn

When I finished reading The Art of Losing, by Rebecca Connell, I wondered what it reminded me of. It was different than other small press titles I had reviewed, so fast paced, so dishy, so full of baroque details. It was the kind of book that people are tempted to hide their love of, for fear that it will brand the way people see them as a reader. It was a pulp novel, almost. Then I looked back at the book’s cover. Rebecca.


Like Daphne du Maurier’s classic of gothic froth, The Art of Losing involves a dead lover, a revenge plot, and lots of people running around at night in the rain. Connell’s book even indulges some flourishes a novel from the 1930s couldn’t, such as the subplot of long-lost half siblings beginning a sexual relationship days before discovering that they’re kin. It’s not the experience that seems in the offing, given the cover’s restrained and elegant cover art. But while Losing is indeed as tawdry as this all sounds, like Rebecca, it contains enough genuinely haunting material to make it impossible to dismiss as a complete trifle.


The story, like the plot of any good romance or thriller, would take nearly as long as the book itself to properly summarize. Trimming away the twists and turns, the story is basically about Nicholas and Lydia, a couple of adulterers. Their affair last years, and the unsuspecting spouses and children often share the same space when the two couples spend time together as casual friends. All this ends when Lydia dies in a car accident after an argument with Nicholas over leaving her husband, Martin. The book is divided between two narrators and two time periods: Nicholas (in the 1980s), and Lydia’s daughter, Louise (in the present day), who begins stalking Nicholas as a way of making sense of her mother’s death.


Half of the book follows Louise as she infiltrates Nicholas’s life under false pretences, and half of the book follows Lydia’s and Nicholas’s affair years earlier. It’s a compelling choice to juxtapose the story of the affair with that of its reverberating effects on one of their children, and it would be enough to underpin a novel of substance, but the threads of these two characters’ lives is somewhat drowned out by the lovingly rendered macabre set pieces, such as the long final scene where Louise wears the dress her mother died in and surprises Nicholas during a lecture. While such scenes are clearly meant to impact (and likely titillate), the irony of the book is that the truly affecting aspects are the subtle ones: the careful portraits of the cuckolded spouses, the curious power that innocence seems to hold over the two narrators.


Both Louise and Nicholas are in possession of secrets that could destroy the lives around them. In Nicholas’s section of the novel, he hides his affair from both his wife and Lydia’s husband, Martin. In Louise’s section, she hides her true identity from Nicholas and tells lies to get closer to his family. It’s curious to see Nicholas in both roles—the holder of a secret as a young man and the guileless target of lies in his middle age. While much of the novel runs through a typically overheated tale of adultery, this parallel between Louise’s and Nicholas’s life is fascinating in its implications.


Connell plays with the idea of knowing and not-knowing, as well as with the distorting effect that having a secret can have a person’s mind and perceptions. In Nicholas’s case the secret of the affair casts the world around him a dewy, twilit haze. His wife, in her ignorance of the affair, becomes pure and innocent. “I thought of Naomi and Adam together upstairs bound in their innocence,” Nicholas muses about his wife and young son as he departs for yet another tryst. His family life, poised as it is on upheaval, becomes achingly precious to him and simultaneously distant. He sees his world in poignant sepia tones, as if from a future when it is already gone:


As we cheered and clinked glasses, I felt strange and choked up. Somehow I knew this would be the last New Year’s Eve that all four of us would be together this way; whatever happened over the next few weeks would tear the quartet apart, so thoroughly that it could never be put together again.


Nicholas seems to most fully experience his life when he positions it on the edge of oblivion. He doesn’t want to ruin his family or Lydia’s, but their existence on that precipice gives his world a new beauty, compelling in its transience.


Likewise, Louise, in the present day, is energized by the power her secret seems to contain. She begins dating Nicholas’s son to get closer to his family and even ends up staying with them for a time. She shops with Naomi, chats with Nicholas at the dinner table, all the while fantasizing about blurting out who she is and what she knows.


The thought flashes through her head that she could make his face change in a matter of seconds, just by letting slip some unmistakable detail. The power is in her hands, but she chooses not to use it, and she feels it sit tightly in her chest, growing ever more significant and precious.


The affair in The Art of Losing does upend lives, but not because of the hurt it causes the spouses or children. It’s the addictive power of the secret that isolates both Nicholas and Louise. Both characters lean on the idea that they could step out of their present existence at any moment by just saying a few words. They are the protectors or the destroyers of another’s innocence, and it’s this heady sensation that keeps them in thrall. The novel’s last moments are therefore all the more affecting when we find out that Martin, Lydia’s husband, likely knew of the affair all along:


Looking at him then, I realize that he is very far from the fool I once thought he was, walking around with his eyes closed and his head in the air. . . . I realize he knows as well as I do that this truth is inescapable. It can never be unknown. . . . There are some secrets that do not need to be told.


The puzzle of Connell’s book is whether or not the substantive ideas in the book are enough to balance out its frippery. Finishing The Art of Losing is like driving home after an illicit liaison—you remember the heavy breathing, the whispered promises, the look of the morning light on a lover’s face. Logically you realize the relationship is nothing more than a fantasy and diversion, but the strength of the attraction seems commensurate with something more.


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