REVIEW: THE ART OF LEAVING BY ANNA STOTHARD

THE ART OF LEAVING

Author: Anna Stothard 
Alma RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan 

The Art of LeavingThe Art of Leaving is one of those books that evoked mixed emotions in me. Having never read anything by Anna Stothard before, I relied on the blurb and the cover art for the initial hook; as I read, I was alternately captivated by the beautifully descriptive writing and befuddled by the enigmatic protagonist, Eva.

Most of us look forward to new beginnings (albeit with trepidation at time; Eva Elliott looks forward to endings … or leaving. The daughter of an airline pilot, she spent her childhood moving countries, cities and schools. Instead of fearing change, she goes after it; there’s more thrill in saying goodbye than a first kiss or smile. Leaving comes naturally to her and instead of seeing the unknown, she sees potential.

It was the ending, Eva maintained, that gave meaning to a story.

Eva lives in a chaotic moth-infested flat in Soho, London, with her much neater, organised boyfriend, Luke. They’ve been together for a few years, lived together for a months … and Eva loves him. In her words: “She could list a million reasons why she needed to leave him: she wasn’t ready for this sort of commitment, and he always wore matching socks …”. They don’t read the same books, he dresses well and is sociable – you get the picture. So, we have one character (Luke) who engages with the world and another (Eva) who mostly doesn’t. Instead, Eva watches an escaped golden eagle (wishing she too could fly away, but like the eagle, linked to her mate) and imagines stories about a girl she spies in a window opposite her office. She’s able to keep reality and fantasy separate, until a new friend appears in her life bearing an unsettling secret.

The Art of Leaving has a Woody Allen-esque feel about it; I can easily see a screenplay of it playing in an arthouse cinema, with reviewers waxing lyrical about beautiful (or offbeat) cinematography and profound messages. It’s not really a mainstream book – it’s more on the contemplative side than about something actually happening and I think many readers will find it slow and melancholy. In fact, at first I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not. The slow start and Eva’s anti-social, commitment-phobe character seemed too detached and hard to connect with. I found myself wondering if I should come back to it another day. But, ultimately, I was drawn in by the prose, which is mesmerising at times, particularly in terms of place.

Interestingly, while The Art of Leaving reflects on the cost of freedom (and commitment) from Eva’s viewpoint, as mentioned earlier she is a difficult character to connect with. Like I said, at first that made me question whether I wanted to know her at all. However, I wonder whether a sense of detachment is the desired effect in this case – that’s how Eva feels (or wants to feel about life) and perhaps readers are meant to experience this as well. It’s a way of connecting with Eva, of ‘walking in her shoes’, perhaps. However, it’s one of those things that could make it or break it for some readers, especially those who really need to like/love the main character to enjoy a book. Being in Eva’s mind is a bit unsettling, especially if you are someone who values commitment or stability – for me, ‘connecting’ with her gave me a melancholy feel, though for freedom-lovers, it could be more akin to excitement.

Strongly written, with descriptive passages that leap from the page, The Art of Leaving is on the offbeat side and won’t be for everyone. But, if you like a book that makes you contemplate life, freedom and the choices we make, this could be worth a try. Just don’t expect the storyline or resolution to leave you feeling uplifted and inspired.

Available from good bookstores. This copy was courtesy of Bloomsbury Sydney.

Bookish treat:  Something you can eat on the run … a packet of healthy trail mix.