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.
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.
Carlton: Black Inc, 2020