It is impossible to review Emma Darwin's novel, The Mathematics of Love, without mentioning that she is the great-great-granddaughter of the eminent naturalist Charles Darwin. But Ms. Darwin quickly and neatly steps out from that formidable shadow with this self-assured and highly ambitious debut novel.

In 1976, 15-year-old Anna Ware is left to her own devices in the Suffolk countryside when she's deposited in the care of her Uncle Ray by her neglectful, flighty mother. Uncle Ray has his hands full closing down Kersey Hall, a former school, and keeping track of his brutal, drunk mother and a young dervish of a boy, Cecil. Anna finally finds friends, adult neighbors Theo and Eva who introduce her to photography, and, in more ways than one, Anna falls in love. But The Mathematics of Love is no simple coming-of-age story. Anna also finds a packet of old letters hidden away in the old estate, and through them we are introduced to Kersey Hall's squire in 1819, Maj. Stephen Fairhurst. After losing a leg during the Napoleonic Wars and enduring a long exile in Spain, Fairhurst has returned to Kersey Hall and is reluctantly engaged in a search for a mistress for his large, mostly empty house. Rebuffed by his first choice, Fairhurst is captivated by his correspondence with her sister, the progressive Lucy Durward, whose fascination with art, battle scenes and early photography methods slowly draws him out of his shell.

The real joy of this novel is the skill with which Darwin interweaves these disparate stories. The author is in no hurry, and we are the richer for it. She switches points of view seamlessly, allowing the reader to revel in her ability to alternate from the exquisite formality of Fairhurst to the flippant bravado of Anna and back again without losing momentum, and the scenes in which these two lives intertwine are especially vivid and moving.

Kristy Kiernan is the author of the novel Catching Genius (Berkley).

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