Ruby grows up in the time of the passive tense – when appearance is everything, when she would do well to heed her elders, and when it is acceptable to assume that men only want one thing from a girl. But her daughter, Eva, coming of age with Whitlam on the horizon and Betty Friedan on her lips, has different ideas. And although Melting Moments is Ruby’s story – it takes us from her youth to her final years – the mother–daughter relationship is crucial to our understanding of the huge arc that our narrator travels through in her 80-plus years. While she is technically of the generation before the baby boomers, some of the sentences Ruby comes out with would be met with the already tired rejoinder “OK boomer!” if it weren’t so apparent why she might feel the way she does, thanks to the careful way that author Anna Goldsworthy has painted her characters into life.
Today, couples are likely to be together for at least five years before getting married, if they marry at all, but less than a century ago that was far from the case. It is not uncommon to find in one’s family tree a couple who knew each other just a few months, or even – across wartime – weeks, before marrying. In Melting Moments Ruby meets and marries Arthur before she knows everything about him, but Arthur is nice enough, a bit unpolished perhaps, a bit anxious, but everyone has their failings – and who can know all of another person anyway? Arthur is psychologically fragile when he returns from war, but becomes a father quietly ready to champion his daughter’s unconventional views.
When Eva starts school, Ruby has time on her hands, and she wonders what to do with her daylight hours, but life soon speeds up with baby Charlie, elderly mothers and so on. As life meanders on, she falls into the trap of believing that a particular house will make her happy – it will be the perfect home to raise the kids and grow a beautiful garden – and for a while her lot seems enough. Then, because humans are never satisfied, “there is always something around the house that needs to be fixed” and Ruby ponders if life “should be something more than a series of daily tasks, successfully dispatched”. What that “something more” might be is at the core of the novel.
Ruby is not the only one in the family experiencing moments of dissatisfaction. When young Eva announces she wants to be a doctor when she grows up, Arthur’s initial response is that perhaps working in a pharmacy would be “more suitable to the demands of raising a family”. Needless to say, Eva does not like this. She resigns her teenage job stacking boxes upon discovering that the boys are paid more; when she asks why this is allowed to happen, Ruby replies, “Why, darling, it’s because they’re boys!” Eva’s parents are surprised that it even necessitates a question.
As is sometimes pointed out in comedy, the crazy aspect in the family dynamic is that it often forces us to share a house with people who have the least in common with us. When someone with traditional values and views has a feminist daughter, questions arise at pace. For women such as Ruby, family arguments about politics and gender opened up conversations that had previously been closed, revealing the quiet dissatisfactions that had been fomenting within.
Yet moving forwards slowly can sometimes resemble moving backwards. Many older women – a subset of society now experiencing greater rates of homelessness, as they have frequently been left with insufficient superannuation or savings – have had to contend with huge social differences across their lifetime. Things they were taught were not for them – piercings, tattoos, degrees, uproarious jokes – are now acceptable, and, conversely, the things they were taught to value – manners, petticoats, needlepoint – are laughed at. This unprecedented level of change can seem like perpetual whiplash.
When Eva drives Ruby’s old Vauxhall she’s appalled at how clunky and heavy it is, so the family surprises Ruby at her birthday with a new “flagrantly red” car like “one of those jellybeans”. But Ruby is left wondering when everyone stopped listening to her opinion and paying attention to what she wanted, and when son Charlie tells her she should “at least pretend to be grateful”, he is unwittingly reiterating a message she’s learnt many times over the course of her life.
Goldsworthy writes touchingly on ageing and “the way it slices bits of you off at a time; the way it removes you, in increments”. When Arthur has a fall, it takes the two of them an hour to get him standing again. All the current trends for wellness have a fear of ageing at their core, but Goldsworthy shows the other side of it, too – the freedom that comes with age, and the wisdom.
There’s a moment in Ruby’s life when she chooses a particular track, and in so doing she turns away from an alternative path. In the background throughout her life – as in any life, for those who choose to consider it – lies the parallel life that might have been. As time draws on for Ruby in the freedom that she finds in later life, we have the chance to consider whether there are any benefits to, as her old friend Bill puts it, “upsetting the applecart”.
This first novel from the concert pianist and memoirist is reminiscent of Madeleine St John’s superb The Women in Black. At its heart is the question of how best to live a life, and in addressing that, Goldsworthy has something to say about the importance of not caring what other people think of us as we balance the unholy mash-up of duties and desires in order to make our best go of it. Melting Moments is an example of the way in which a work of fiction, which is by its definition made up, can sometimes be nonetheless exquisitely true.
Black Inc, 240pp, $29.99
Black Inc is a Schwartz company.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 29, 2020 as "Anna Goldsworthy, Melting Moments".
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