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Anna Goldsworthy, Melting moments (#BookReview)

November 27, 2020
Book cover

Melting moments is Australian writer and concert pianist Anna Goldsworthy’s debut novel, following her highly successful memoir of a decade ago, Piano lessons (my review).

Melting moments – for those not familiar with this Antipodean classic – are little shortbread-based biscuits (cookies) sandwiched together with buttercream. In titling her book by these little treats, with the added intimation of moments that melt our heart, Goldsworthy flags the tone and subject matter of her book. The tone is going to be gentle, and the subject matter domestic. The question is: does this make for an interesting book, or just a sweet one?

Overall, I’d say interesting. As a member of my reading group suggested, there is another connotation of the title, that of moments that melt away, of moments that don’t last. So, Goldsworthy’s Melting moments captures the life of a woman from the so-called “greatest generation”. Born between 1901 and 1927 (so my mother just misses it), they went though the Great Depression and World War 2. Sociologist Glen Elder suggests they came out of these experiences “with an ability to know how to survive and make do and solve problems”. This could describe Goldsworthy’s protagonist, Ruby, who marries Arthur, after a short courtship, on the eve of his heading off to the War. She might as well have the “war widow pension” he says, an idea that was, I think, behind a few marriages at the time. This social history aspect is one of the reasons for reading this book which takes us through the decades of marriage, children, empty nest, ageing parents, retirement village life, leaving us when Ruby reaches her early eighties.

This, I know, makes it sound like one of those big family sagas, but in fact it’s not, on two counts. First, it’s short, at just 230 pages, and second, it has no big dramas – just the little trials and tribulations of life.

“misplaced life”

However, this doesn’t mean the book is boring. Ruby lived in the pre-feminist world when women had few rights but many gender-prescribed responsibilities – stay-at-home, cook and house-keep, bring up the children, and keep the husband happy. Like many of her generation, she doesn’t rock boats, but knuckles down to it (using her consciously developed “resourcefulness” to help her along the way). But, she’s not blind to what all this means and, sometimes, she feels

the emptiness rush in at her, as if she were living on a road from nowhere to nowhere …

Or, occasionally wonders

whether life should be something more than a series of daily tasks, successfully dispatched.

Indeed, later in the novel, she considers a path not taken – one involving throwing it all in for the exciting man. But that way led to “briars … social condemnation; impecuniousness; the heartbreak of children”, and, anyhow, the man had removed himself. Nonetheless, she sometimes feels

as if she had missed a summons. As if she had somehow missed her life.

This situation, of course, is not unique to her generation, but it is true that making such a break in her era would have been more difficult. And, anyhow, Arthur, as Ruby recognises herself, was not a bad husband – just a “stolid” one – and their marriage was “more or less” successful.

The novel is written third person, but its focus is Ruby, meaning that the other characters are not significantly fleshed out. Most are nonetheless more than just simple stereotypes. The “stolid” but kind Arthur, for example, is more willing to accept daughter Eva’s grasping the freedom of the 1960s and 1970s than Ruby. And Eva, though frustrated with her mother’s conservatism and inability to understand the changing world, is a loving daughter who finds a balance between living her life her way and loving and supporting her mother.

Ruby’s parents have some individualised flesh on their bones too, but Arthur’s mother, Granny Jenkins who lives with them much of their married life, is rather more the stereotypical unsupportive, demanding mother-in-law. However, Ruby just gets on with that too – as most women did – organising things as much as she can to minimise the imposition .

Now, early in this post, I mentioned that this book, despite its chronological sweep, is not a saga. This begs the question of how Goldsworthy tells the story of such a long life in such few words. She does it by using an episodic structure, skilfully paced so that you always know where you are in Ruby’s life. The gaps are obvious, of course, but it’s also clear that we are getting the critical “moments” in Ruby’s life.

The end effect of all this is a quietly observed book, one unsatisfying for some, and perfectly satisfying for others, as my reading group discovered. Some of us wanted the gaps filled in. Why was Arthur released early from active service, for example. Others of us accepted that the focus was Ruby and what she thought and cared about. When the opportunity finally comes when Arthur might share his war story, she turns away and makes a cup of tea! “What’s done is done”, she says.

There is some humour in the book, and I did smile many times, but, while it felt like an Austen-ish story, it doesn’t have the sharpness of her wit. I must say that in a nicely observed story like this, I did miss that bit of bite.

Melting moments, then, did not exactly wow me, but neither did I find it trivial. Without being consciously political, it works as a reminder of those women who didn’t always identify what it was that caused their feelings of “emptiness”, but who just got on with it, and somehow managed at the same time to bring up the Evas who went on to grab the opportunities available. Goldsworthy has paid credit to them, in a warm-hearted and enjoyable book.

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Anna Goldsworthy
Melting moments
Carlton: Black Inc, 2020
230pp.
ISBN: 9781863959988

20 Comments leave one →
  1. residentjudge permalink
    November 27, 2020 19:58

    I didn’t realize that this was such a recent book. Your mother just missed that generation, but did it ring true?

    • November 27, 2020 20:05

      Yes, I think it did Janine. That sense of marriage being the only real option for most women, and of being expected to stay home and do all the “womanly” stuff. However, Mum, around a decade younger than Ruby, did take up the opportunities to study in her late 40s. It’s something Ruby may have done with Whitlam’s free university education, but like most of her generation (like many of Mum’s too), didn’t.

  2. November 27, 2020 20:23

    As I get older, these basic stories are things that I appreciate more and more. I do not need lots of plot twists to keep me interested in a book if there are other strong aspects to it.

    My mother was in this generation of women. It is always interesting that my father was also a soldier but they married after the war was over.

    • November 27, 2020 23:40

      No, me neither Brian. I like nicely observed books about ordinary lives. Same with my parents, but my Mum was significantly younger than Dad. She was only 16 when the war ended in the Pacific. She didn’t;t meet Dad until a few years after that – around 1948 I think.

  3. November 28, 2020 03:56

    I was just looking at this one this morning. Decided to pass as I have another title here yet to read by this author.

  4. November 28, 2020 08:54

    Beautifully expressed Sue. It is about those women, who just get on with life, and have their own small regrets and compromises. I also loved that it was set in urban Australia (mostly Adelaide) that many of us grew up in. And there were echoes of the class gaps in society, the upwardly mobile acquisition of a spacious home and garden. Letting the children play across the road in the park, with a frisson of stranger danger also reminded me of my childhood.
    So I enjoyed the references to my own upbringing, and the similarity to the situation of my own mother and grandmother. As you said an enjoyable and quietly immersing read without being a dramatic or fully satisfying.

    • November 28, 2020 09:00

      Thanks for commenting Kate. I should have said something about the setting.

      Great point about class and upward mobility. When I was looking over the book for the review I came across that line about her restlessness about her marriage being settled by the house and garden, somethiing like ”turns out all she needed was a garden”. Those quiet touches of humour were lovely.

      • December 1, 2020 08:54

        Elizabeth von Armin was right! A garden obviously became the refuge of many a wife and mother.

  5. November 28, 2020 17:28

    Mum’s mum makes it, born 1905. Granddad was born the same year, so they barely noticed the first War, but married into the Depression, farming in the Mallee through those desperate years of poverty and dust storms. Your comment “in those years before feminism” illustrate why I distrust historical fiction. Australia in fact had a great tradition of feminism from Catherine Helen Spence on through Miles Franklin and many others. I’m sure then as now many women would look to another husband for escape, but some would have read My Brilliant Career or Dawn, or the literature of the suffragists and would have looked to their own resources, and I would like to hear from them, not the best guess of a middle class woman 80 or 90 years after the event.

    • November 28, 2020 19:06

      Oh but Bill, yes, Australia did have a wonderful tradition of feminism BUT most historians I believe agree that things lapsed or slowed, rather than progressed in terms of women’s lives, through the 1940s and 50s when this character was in her twenties and thirties (her prime!) After all, my Mum, when she married in 1951 HAD to give up work – in the bank. That was common. We all talk about the second wave of feminism, from the late 1960s. We say that for a reason.

      I haven’t listened to it yet, but I believe from my reading group that Goldsworthy has spoken about how she based Ruby on her grandmother’s life, making it, I believe, more than her best guess.

      I think it would have been hard for the majority of women to look to their own resources – as most did not have resources or support to fall back on. Or were ridiculed by men if they did. Women had to be strong to follow their own course. Of course there were exceptions – a good friend’s mother, who was a bit older than my mother, did her pharmacy degree and she and her husband had a pharmacy business, with her as the pharmacist.

      • November 28, 2020 19:11

        I don’t disagree with you, the post WWII years were a time of going backwards. BUT I want to know how women of the time felt, not one of my contemporaries who can only reiterate what we think.

        • November 28, 2020 19:28

          That’s fair enough Bill, but of course I think historical fiction can play a role here, particularly when not many women did get the opportunity to write their stories about how they felt. Ruth Park was an exception in those awful times, but she had a supportive writer husband, and they chose an insecure writer’s life. How do we get the stories of those “silent” women? We get a skewed story if we only get the stories written at the time because they tend to be the stories not of the majority? Historians have captured some stories of the “ordinary” woman but, as writing history about women back then was not seen as valid history, they’ve had to go back to find the stories, just like the historical fiction writers do.)

          Fiction plays a role in bringing these stories to life – and sometimes that has to be historical fiction (like Kim Scott has done!! I’m going to keep saying that until the end of time!)

  6. November 28, 2020 17:30

    “occasionally wonders
    whether life should be something more than a series of daily tasks, successfully dispatched”
    The meaning of it – that’s what she’s wondering about.
    That’s pretty radical.

    • November 28, 2020 19:07

      Yes, I agree M-R, I think she, like many women of her generation champed at the bit. How deadly it must have been!

      • Neil@kallaroo permalink
        November 28, 2020 20:38

        I suspect life for women raising children still has the potential to be deadly. And if the women go to work and hand the children over to child care, they just hand over the deadliness. Western society still has a long way to get the balance right.

        • November 28, 2020 21:10

          True Neil … women have more legal rights now, but that’s only half the story isn’t it? Child-care though isn’t necessarily all bad, but balance is the thing.

  7. December 1, 2020 09:12

    Since reading this last night Sue, I have been hung up on the melting moments thing. My grandmother had a melting moment recipe that included custard powder in the biscuit part, although I see that the AWW advocates cornflour instead. I think I may have to make some for Christmas, as I associate them with them hot summer days. Our trips to visit Grandma usually occurred over the summer holiday period.

    My mum was born during the last year of the war, and considering she has four daughters, she was a pretty staunch anti-feminist. It’s only now I realise she was responding/reacting against the idea that everything about her life was being challenged and possibly ridiculed by many of the second-wave feminists. It was a natural self-defence mechanism to validate her own life choices, something she has a right to be proud of even if it was different to the feminist-line at the time. I still get surprised though by her vehement dislike of people like Germaine Greer and more recently, Jane Caro. She always urged my sisters and I, not to call ourselves feminists, as it was a dirty word for her. We did anyway, and perhaps more loudly than we might have done otherwise, as any teenager will do when told not to do something by their mother!

    • December 1, 2020 16:36

      Thanks for all this Brona. I looked up recipes too, as I was trying to find the history of the biscuits, and noticed that some had custard powder. Since custard powder is mostly cornflour, I wonder what it adds to the recipe? Maybe a little intensity of flavour. They weren’t a common thing in my family – Anzac biscuits and pikelets were out thing mostly – but I do remember my Aunt making them once.

      How interesting re your mother. Understandable though because those early second wave women were pretty strident I think – which is a shame. You made me laugh about you and your sister claiming feminism more loudly because of her antagonism to it. She must have been one of those “women who want to be women” people! Jane Caro is very strong isn’t she – but good for her. She’s getting some good messages across. But women brought up the way your mother was tend not to like outspoken strident women do they? I was lucky that my Mum was very much on board with feminism, because she felt constrained by the restrictions on her life.

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