Everyone likes to make plans. In the case of Edie Cottingham, she likes to write hers down in her leather-covered notebook. Once they’re there, she reasons, everything will happen as it should. First on her agenda is ‘a plan for love that would be gentle and soothing like a freshly brewed hot cup of tea first thing on an icy morning.’
Thus begins The Art of Preserving Love, Ada Langton’s bittersweet tale of love against great odds, set in a small Australian country town against the tragic backdrop of World War I. Edie is adorable – bright and sparky. You care about what happens to her from page one. Not so the local biddies who think her ‘too stubborn…too outspoken…too liberal.’
Edie reminds you of a young puppy straining on the leash in her eagerness to leave home and start her own story, but in 1905 the only way a young woman can escape is to marry. Not believing herself to be attractive to men – ‘her looks were unremarkable’- we find Edie daringly shortening her blue chiffon skirt to show some leg in the hope of catching the attention of the man she’s fallen for, Theo Hooley, the church organist recently returned from the Boer War. Gooo Edie!
But just as true love seems to be taking its natural course, tragedy strikes, ruining the
19-year old’s carefully laid plans. It breaks her heart, but Edie being Edie, she puts her chin up and does the right thing. Forced to turn down Theo’s marriage proposal, no-one (least of all Edie), could have predicted how long Theo would wait and to what lengths he would go to declare his undying love – or what would happen to both of them in the meantime.
While Edie and Theo’s doomed relationship is our prime concern, it’s not the sole focus of The Art of Preserving Love.
Langton skilfully concocts other storylines that lead to interesting places: there’s Paul, Edie’s gentle father, the family maid Beth whose life takes some surprising turns, aristocratic Reuben whose accidental brush with Theo in the trenches has far-reaching ramifications, and Theo’s gorgeous mother, Lilly: ‘She liked it when the onion juice made her cry; she had a lot to cry for, it got very tiring being cheery all the time, being able to cry was as good as having a nice lie down.’
Events in the early 20th century impose themselves in a story that graphically confronts war, the mud, the cruelty, the violence, PTSD looming in the plight of the shattered young soldiers who are haunted by the bloodbath they’ve witnessed.
There’s an Australia in this book that is at once familiar and yet foreign. People ‘pop in,’ say ‘bloody hell,’ don’t ‘give a hoot’ and drink endless cups of tea. But in the early stages, women can’t have careers, only work if they’re poor (in menial jobs, like Beth), and church attendance is compulsory. There are huge class distinctions, incredible ignorance about child-rearing (breast-feeding was frowned upon), nutrition and health in general, as well as some very strange cures, like wine laced with cocaine.
Spanning several decades, change eventually arrives like a southerly buster after a long hot day. It stirs up lives. Women begin to stand up for their rights and take off down the path towards independence. Yay. Workers challenge bosses about outrageous working conditions and poor pay. (More cheering). The town’s first car begins chugging around the town streets.
Grief plays its part in this story as well, especially its power to irrevocably change us.
But sad, this book is not. Throughout it all, Langton manages preserves a lovely aura of romance, and writes truly about enduring love through characters that are meaningful and authentic.
You might shed the odd tear along the way. Gasp occasionally. But you’ll also smile a lot, cheer people on and have a great time being wrapped up in the lives of all concerned.
A delight from beginning to end – that’s The Art of Preserving Love.
About the author
Ada Langton was a winner of the Varuna-HarperCollins Manuscript Award, writes a sometimes blog and published two books Sunday Best and After Before Time under the name Robbi Neal. She adopted the pen-name Ada Langton for her fiction. She chose Ada in memory of her great-grandfather who tragically died of cancer aged only forty-five, and Langton in memory of her much-loved grandfather who was the inspiration for Reuben in her novel The Art of Preserving Love.