Anna Goldsworthy, Melting moments (#BookReview)

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.

Challenge logo

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

Anna Goldsworthy, Piano lessons (#BookReview)

Book coverEver since Anna Goldsworthy’s memoir, Piano lessons, was published, I’ve hankered to read it, but somehow never got around to acquiring a copy. So, when I was casting around for our next road trip audiobook and this one popped up serendipitously in Borrowbox, I grabbed the opportunity.

Now, I have to admit that although I did play drums and fife, briefly, in a primary school band, I have never had formal music lessons. Ballet was my thing as a child. However, Mr Gums learnt piano to Grade 7, and I sat in on our kids’ music lessons, especially their piano ones, for years. I loved it, because I learnt so much about music (and music teachers) as a result. I was consequently primed for this book about the author’s piano lessons and her relationship with her Russian-born piano teacher, Mrs Sivan. Being on the Liszt List, that is, someone whose student-teacher lineage reaches back to Liszt, Mrs Sivan initially comes across as formidable, but very soon her warmth and generosity come to the fore.

Essentially, this memoir is a coming-of-age story. It covers Goldsworthy’s life – specifically her piano-playing life – from the age of nine until her mid-late twenties. It is not, however, the traditional coming-of-age story, but her coming-of-age as a musician and, along the way, as a wiser more rounded person. We see Anna coping with the humiliation of failure, when she gets a C in an important piano exam having been used to always getting As. We see the point at which she realises that, if she is to achieve her concert pianist dream, practising for barely two hours a day is not going to cut it. We see the naiveté of a young woman who, not prepared for a journalist’s questions, manages to hurt the people closest to her, learning, in the process, the importance of “humility and gratitude”. And, we see the brilliant pianist and school dux learning that a “perfect score” is “not proof against disaster”.

But, we also hear the wisdom of her piano teacher who doesn’t just teach her the techniques of playing piano, but also the meaning of music, the value and role of the arts and, more, a deeply humane philosophy of life, one that recognises, for example, the value of competition for learning but not for measuring one’s achievement or worth. Indeed, she tells Anna that she is “not teaching piano playing”, she is “teaching philosophy”. It is some years, of course, before Anna stops seeing piano playing as “obstacle courses for fingers” but as something you feel and express.

Goldsworthy describes this piano teacher, Mrs Sivan, as “less a character than a force”, and she conveys this sense largely through reproducing her teacher’s rapid-fire broken English. This might have been worked well in text, but in the audiobook – which was read by Goldsworthy herself – it was frequently difficult to listen to and was sometimes so fast that we missed words. Unfortunately, I don’t have the text to give you an example, but I found one tiny quote on GoodReads. Here is Mrs Sivan telling student Anna about Chopin:

I tell you a secret about Chopin, piano is his best friend. More. He tells piano all his secrets.

Mrs Sivan preceded this by saying that George Sand was not Chopin’s great love, the piano was! One of the real pleasures of this book is the insight provided into several musicians, particularly Bach, Mozart and Chopin, but also Beethoven, Shostakovich and others. Mrs Sivan knows them and their music so well, and impresses upon Anna that musicians must understand the composer and their lives to understand their music. Mozart, for example, “was born with happy of everything”.  I found her adamance about this interesting, because, in the literary arts, there are those who argue that the author’s life is irrelevant and should not be considered at all. I think there’s a place for it.

Piano lessons is not a long book – just 240 pages or so – but the writing and the structuring of the story are so tight that Goldsworthy conveys this coming-of-age to some depth despite the book’s brevity. She does this by never labouring her points, by knowing which stories to tell and how much to tell of them, and by imbuing it all with a light touch. Sometimes you think you are left hanging – “did she win that audition?” – but the answer always comes directly or indirectly a little later.

There is more to this book about music and musicians, about fostering talent, about forging a meaningful life as a musician, and about teaching being “the highest calling”, but not having it on hand, I’ll close here by sharing Mrs Sivan’s words about the arts. She told Goldsworthy that the arts must be “aesthetically and ethically grounded” and that they embody “unlimited flying of imagination”. I like both of these ideas – particularly that about the arts needing to be both aesthetic and ethical. In one sense, I don’t like to think that the arts “should” be anything, but I also believe that being ethical about what we do – whatever that is – is important. I think I would have liked Mrs Sivan.

Lisa also (ANZLitLovers) loved this book.

Challenge logoAnna Goldsworthy
Piano lessons (Audio)
(Read by Anna Goldsworthy)
Bolinda Audio, 2015 (Orig. pub. 2009)
2:23 e-audiobook (Unabridged)
ISBN: 9781489020260