Think back to your first loss. Perhaps it was a plastic shovel thrown out the window of a moving car, the skin on your knee to a sidewalk, a goldfish, your grandma. Similar to first loves, losses leave us, for a while, dispirited. Objects often stand in for things that we lose. Think of a biblical fruit, a paradise lost. Objects can be a vehicle powered by memory or a distraction that takes us somewhere where the loss doesn’t mean sadness, where it can mean hope and maybe even happiness. As we move further away from a loss, lapses in memories of the lost thing create a canyon of missingness. With time, the valley grows deeper, edges more rugged, higher. We try to bridge the gap with objects or remembrance, filling crevasses with photographs, favourite books, and maybe too much to drink. There are times when the journey across is so minuscule that you doubt its existence. Did the loss even happen? Eventually though, as time will always have it, phone numbers will be forgotten, the smell of a lover’s breath gone, and the touch of plastic no longer reminds us of a small purple shovel. Loss is tricky at best–it is universal yet profoundly personal. Within loss, we experience love, grief, and joy. We can feel closer or perhaps further from people than we have ever felt.
Loss is universal yet profoundly personal. We can feel closer or perhaps further from people than we have ever felt.
The Lost Properties of Love by Sophie Ratcliffe is a journey through what we lose as we live, but it is also a reminder of what we have and what we have gained. It’s a story of affairs had and not. Of all the random shit kept in handbags, fish fingers included. Of the photographs we keep and the memories we try so hard to hold onto. It’s a book about travel and time (though not exclusively time travel) and the poetics of trains. We are given reimagining of Anna Karenina and Kate Field, women who too travelled through their own time on their respective trains in search of love or something similar, in spite of loss. This book is an exhilarating, thoughtful and often comically honest foray into the life of a woman trying to understand herself. With Ratcliffe, we trudge through messy landscapes of love and chug through frank and raw emotions. It is a must-read.
It is a must-read.
Sophie Ratcliffe is a critic and writer of books. She is also an academic who teaches English at the University of Oxford. She is originally from London. And she is someone I’d like to have a glass (or eight) of wine with and just chat about things that I am probably not quite smart enough to understand. Published in 2019 in Great Britain by William Collins, a Harpercollins imprint, The Lost Properties of Love clocks in at almost 300 pages. Staying true to her roots in academia, Ratcliffe has left the final forty or so pages of the book for quotation sources, so if the girth intimidates you, not to worry. It’s a quick yet impactful read. Perfect for a weekend at a park with a bottle of Oyster Bay. Or perhaps a train ride, your choice.
The other day I was texting a friend about the integrity and truth when it comes to creative non-fiction. Is there a difference between autobiography and memoir? How do these subgenres work within the genre of creative non-fiction (CNF)? It’s a conversation that’s been going on in my head now for a while. To my friend, autobiography is your whole life. A biography is your life told by someone else. But a memoir is “specifically curated moments–a specific slice of life.” For me, memoir is when art comes in.
This whole truth business is a contentious topic and it should be. Truth is important. It’s what we want, a lot of the time more than anything, but when it comes to what we read and what we write, what kind of truth matters? Does the C of CNF give a writer license to change things? To what extent? It’s something to think about as we label this novel memoir, which I will forever argue that we should.
I like the idea that a memoir is a curation of moments. Because this book is that if nothing else. As you read you will see it is a curation of emotions and train rides and objects, but most importantly of moments.
“Though not an autobiography, this book contains an account of my life.”
At the open, we are greeted with a caveat. “Though not an autobiography, this book contains an account of my life.” That is what a memoir should be, an account of a life. When I read this, I was excited to continue on with the book. I sighed that clichéd sigh as I thanked god that this would not be another one of those linear this is where I grew up, where I went to school, where I fell in love, where I got famous, where it all went wrong, where I hired a ghostwriter formulaic kind of book.
She says she has, “played the biographer, reimagined other people’s imagining, conjectured alternative lives, and wandered into fiction.” Perhaps you read this and thought: hold on. Fiction? And yes, fiction. But the fiction found in this book is not the kind where she is making up siblings and staking claim to a throne. I would argue that the fiction here is not truly fiction. This kind of fiction that Ratcliffe presents, I believe, is a reimagining of past figures real and not in order to further understand herself. The aim of the book is not to have the modus operandi of, say, Flannery O’Connor or Alice Munro. Here, fiction is used as a vehicle to illuminate Ratcliffe’s lived themes of loss, love, affairs, and to juxtapose and reflect emotions, experiences, and life journeys. So, when it comes to truth, these forays into fiction are completely forgiven within this non-fiction realm because the intent is not deceit.
Although I have a feeling that admitting fictitious behaviour is something all who write creative non-fiction must do at some point, even if it is in the dark and to themselves. Memory itself is a tricky thing and often as tricky as its contents. No one can remember perfectly.
Back to autobiographies, which while interesting, often lack the artful angle of a memoir. At least in my experience. Ratcliffe could’ve easily written a book about the death of her father, and it would’ve been sad, but it would’ve been just that. Instead, she has taken readers on a more meaningful journey, one that exemplifies the possibilities of the genre of creative non-fiction, truth and otherwise.
It’s hard in this kind of book to have spoilers because the tension is different than in a fiction novel. It’s like how you can’t really give away the ending of a museum exhibit. There is no big spoiler or reveal, just small revelations throughout. These realizations will mean different things to all of us, so it’s hard to spoil that experience. Nonetheless, you’ve been warned. Spoilers may lay ahead.
The most unique and stand out feature of The Lost Properties of Love is the form. While we’re not lambasted with puzzles or illustrations or some other quirky little gimmick, the form and structure of the story is noteworthy. The contents, shown as a train schedule, start readers on an extended journey from Hull to Oxford with detours and small moments in Moscow, London, and New York spanning multiple decades. There are a lot of books out there trying to be clever, assuming everyone is on the same page. In being so dang clever, simple things like time tags and locations are omitted, leaving the reader confused. That doesn’t happen here. We should all be grateful. Throughout, we are given the setting of the chapter then shown the memories, thoughts, and ideas that are evoked at each location.
Paragraphs vary in length and don’t overwhelm the page or the reader (looking at you Milkman). White space is used with grace. Ideas and moments are given space to breathe. As a reader, it feels like are you are granted the time to ponder a feeling and to relish in poetics. The book is contemplative but doesn’t feel masturbatory. Each word in each sentence is used. Usually not one for epigraphs, I appreciated the majority selected by Ratcliffe, with exception of a page long Trollope quote. Perhaps I’m a lazy reader or just not one for Trollope.
Try to remember English class and that chart your teacher probably showed you, the one that looked like a heartbeat. Presumably, your teacher had you read stories and plot events along certain points on this chart, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, etcetera. This book doesn’t adhere to this idea of a singular string of events that carries you through to the end of the story. This is not to say by any means that this book doesn’t go anywhere, because it does, but you just get there in a different way than you might expect.
“All my life I’ve made journeys like this, detours from the tracks that I’m meant to be on. The journey feels like a way to a cure even as it speaks of an illness. Some of us have loved this journey itself most of all, loved it more than arriving.” While not intended to, Ratcliffe also speaks to the meandering of thoughts that make up the journey of The Lost Properties of Love, the ways that she attempts to cure some sense of loss.
As mentioned, each chapter exists somewhere different from the previous, whether physically or in an imagined situation or memory. Through these places, we are given five sort-of storylines. There is the main journey from Hull to Oxford in 2016, time spent with a lover in the mid-2000’s, the journey of Anna Karenina, that of Kate Field, and Ratcliffe’s childhood. There are some chapters that wander further, but they always find their way back to the central feeling.
“Telling a story through detail, though, is a way of avoiding other stories.”
Somewhere midway, Racliffe says, “Telling a story through detail, though, is a way of avoiding other stories.” This is a major mood for the book. As a reader, you’re not left feeling robbed from an epic story that you could easily plot out on one of those story charts because the moments we as readers are shown are so much bigger than the book itself.
Let’s for a moment, label this look at self-help. It’s not really in the sense that you’re thinking, but for a moment let’s. I’ve been reluctant to read self-help books, not because I’m twenty-four and arrogantly have decided that I’ve got it figured out enough to get on with life (okay, maybe it’s that a little), but because I’m wary of the author’s authority. Who are they, educated and etcetera, to be telling me how to live my life better? Do they know what I’m even going through? (Insert more angsty thoughts here.)
Ratcliffe, unlike other “self-help” gurus, feels authentic.
Ratcliffe, unlike other “self-help” gurus, feels authentic. And that’s just a gut feeling. I’m compelled to listen to her because unlike books to self-discovery that I’ve encountered before, this one doesn’t rely on positive thinking and setting intentions, which are probably very nice things to be doing. Instead, she focusses on what’s comfortable for her. She’s not some random lady telling you to dig into your whateverth energy-centre and forgive all the shitty men who have wronged you. She writes what she knows, and she does it with an earned authority.
She writes what she knows, and she does it with an earned authority.
This kind of ‘self-help’ is interesting because it’s accessible in its most basic topical sense. Unlike the whole Eat, Pray, Love thing, Ratcliffe’s therapy or ‘self-help’ consists of relating moments to familiar characters and real people. It requires meditation on trains. Readers aren’t compelled to spend thousands of dollars on trips to Ashrams or renting in Rome.
It works because I have a feeling that she wrote this book for herself. As a woman who has an innate love for literature, of course, Ratcliffe’s best course to some form of self-understanding was through examining literature.
To perhaps contradict myself entirely, my main qualm with this book is the accessibility of its content. Ratcliffe is outrageously intelligent, and it shows. This book itself is smart. It’s quick and makes references to canon in ways that perhaps only an Oxford professor would. Though at times, The Lost Properties of Love can come across as too smart.
But its existence on the verge of academia is thankfully saved by its sincere and emotional rawness. Not too saved as there’s still an incredible source of quotations in the back. But, at the same time, who am I to fault an academic writer for being too much of what they are? For a reader who isn’t familiar with the literary references, what is the value? Arguably, the value is a deeper insight into her way of understanding and displaying her life. Therefore, we are given the opportunity to take our own references and connect them to the happenings of our lives. This, of course, is not required as you don’t actually have to treat every book as a form of therapy.
“A Trollopian night is characterized by…” Yet, the following sentence ends with, “...a relay of surface and bottom wiping.”
Ratcliffe could, if given the chance, talk about Tolstoy, et al., forever. Yet, it is in these moments where we might feel like a reference has gone too far or too smart that you can see her restraint. In one paragraph, we read a sentence which starts with “A Trollopian night is characterized by…” Yet, the following sentence ends with, “...a relay of surface and bottom wiping.” Just before crossing the threshold into pretentious, we are grounded by sobering details of a woman somewhere in the middle of her life.
Ratcliffe understands how books work and she understands how to study them. It’s quite literally her job. While reading this book, I found myself more aware of repetition, taking note of instances of things like handbags, the colour green, and references to Niagara Falls. This book was written to be studied because that is what the book itself does. It’s kind of meta, if you think about it.
A few weeks ago, my sister told me that in 2013, it took two men over sixteen hours to visit all 270 London Underground stations. Can you imagine? Sixteen hours, many below ground, moving from train to train at the complete mercy of a predetermined map. Time would pass so differently. I can’t stop thinking about it.
“On a train our spatial and temporal responsibility is gone, our destination preordained.”
“On a train,” Ratcliffe says, “perhaps more intensely than on any other form of transport, our spatial and temporal responsibility is gone, our destination preordained.” It’s the way that trains allow time to bend that seems to enthrall Ratcliffe. She speaks as if on a train there is more than one journey. There’s the physical journey of getting from one place to another (Hull to Oxford), but there’s another experience, an imagined one that’s fuelled by memory and desire rather than coal or electricity. This is what we are given.
Russia and the United Kingdom, countries with big parts in this book, rank in the top seven countries when it comes to passengers carried in rail transport per year. This doesn’t include the annual ridership of the London Underground, over a billion, or that of the Moscow Metro, over 2 billion.
If there’s one thing for certain that this book is big on it’s trains. The title itself plays off of the idea of lost properties in a major train station. Except in the book, the train ride is more of a metaphorical journey of a life being lived. As I read The Lost Properties of Love, I couldn’t help but wonder if all this train talk could come with the risk of losing some readers. Would some readers, unaware of how transfers and oyster cards work get lost in this heavy-handed travel theme? What about the readers who don’t come from somewhere where people frequently ride the rails? I only think of this because where I grew up trains were for potash, coal, and grain, not people.
Uncertain of the rail systems and forgetful of the fact that the Northern Line splits twice, there were moments when I found myself a little lost. I could’ve looked up a map. In the end, it didn’t matter much. I still enjoyed the book, but I was nonetheless confused. Of course, trains are globally ubiquitous, but the meanings and existences are different from person to person and place to place. Maybe that works, too? After all, it’s not all about us.
The train motif is apt and imperative for the book to function. The Lost Properties of Love is written travelling from place to place, recalling memories in a liminal space where time matters in a different way, and this has everything to do with trains.
Places are important because they are grounding, as they are in most stories. They give a beginning and end to each segment of the train rides. They offer a spot to imagine Ratcliffe’s childhood, her affairs. These places are important to Ratcliffe, so by proxy, they must be taken as important to the reader. Though, for most non-British readers especially, I presume they will serve little purpose beyond a name or something to Google.
Often in stories, the setting plays the role of a character. Here, I’d argue it does that, but in a more thematic way. Locations are key as they are mentioned so frequently. Ratcliffe’s childhood haunts are described to the extent that the place itself seems to come alive. You can feel the power of the atmosphere. As if it has a mind of its own to move about freely. Think of a being in a train travelling across the vastness of Russian or the suburban homes on the outskirts of London. With these places, Ratcliffe gives us a feeling of atmosphere that verges on personification.
Ratcliffe gives us a feeling of atmosphere that verges on personification.
As with most books, there is a main character or characters. In memoir, it’s a little different because the main character is also the creator. They are the primary focus and everything is seen through their lens of experience. While never straying from the focus of herself, Ratcliffe introduces some rather interesting characters, some of whom are imagined.
There is Ratcliffe’s family, her father, who dies when she’s thirteen, her mother, who brings her children on a biannual pilgrimage to buy a new purse, her sibling, her children, and her husband. We are given hints of a lover and almost love, a photographer over thirty years older than she. Then, interestingly, we are given imaginings of preexisting characters and people: Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy, Anthony Trollope, and Kate Field. That’s where the aforementioned fictitious behaviour comes to play.
This book has been referred to as a guide on how not to have an affair.
This book has been referred to as a guide on how not to have an affair. I’m not sure if that fits my reading, but then, I’ve never had an affair. The connection between Anna Karenina and affairs is clear to anyone who has read or Googled or heard about the book. Therefore, Tolstoy, Anna’s creator, is too entangled in the creation of an affair. To bring in Trollope and Field is interesting. It’s one of the ways in which we are reminded of the aforementioned photographer, and an affair not had. While I don’t want to spoil Ratcliffe’s theories and the relationships she delves into, there are tracks built between trains stations, photographs, affairs, all attempts at some sort of duality.
“Any affair is an attempt to live twice. Set into the beige wall of everyday linear time, it exists beyond a door you think nobody else has noticed. You walk past doors just like it everyday.”
“Any affair is an attempt to live twice. Set into the beige wall of everyday linear time, it exists beyond a door you think nobody else has noticed. You walk past doors just like it everyday.”
The thing about affairs is that there has to be another relationship at play. One cannot venture out on an affair if they are not involved with another. Ratcliffe knows and acknowledges the trickiness of being in a relationship and how marriage is hard. With tenderness, she speaks of her husband in a way that you might not expect if you are anticipating reading about affairs. People change, even if somewhat unwillingly, and relationships evolve. That is also what this book is about. If you can’t tell, there’s a shit ton of stuff packed into less than 300 pages. But, what did I say? Each word is used.
If this book is a reflection, or an exhibition, of Ratcliffe, it’s only safe to say that she’s thinking about a lot of things, all of the time. Perhaps one might read it as continuous information dumps, but I think it’s more stream-of-consciousness and creating a connecting web of items and themes.
The bag poses as a sign of a feminist statement of independence while simultaneously acting as a way to hide ourselves, our female messes.
This book was initially called Anna Karenina’s Handbag, and I am grateful that the name didn’t stick. While it has a ring to it, the name doesn’t fit. Perhaps, it fit what the book once was, but it doesn’t fit what it has become. The mention of Anna Karenina in the title gives her more importance than everyone else, which is an unfair misrepresentation, especially when the book is about Ratcliffe. What is more interesting is the object and the idea of the handbag.
The bag poses as a sign of a feminist statement of independence while simultaneously acting as a way to hide ourselves, our female messes. “So everyday in their status as totes, or carries, that we barely register their existence, bags are entwined with the world of secrets and power, money and myth.”
“So everyday in their status as totes, or carries, that we barely register their existence, bags are entwined with the world of secrets and power, money and myth.”
Ratcliffe considers her own bag with a copy of Anna Karenina stuffed inside. The bags of Anna Karenina perhaps holding a book by Trollope and handkerchiefs. How bags change when one becomes a parent. Perhaps the bags are now filled with broken crayons and snacks. Of course, there’s the link to emotional baggage, collected from the mere, all though sometimes it feels brave, act of existing. Before she jumps in front of a train, Anna Karenina throws her bag to the side of the tracks.
On Instagram, more than a hundred thousand photos are labelled with the hashtag #inmybag. Vogue has dedicated an entire section of YouTube videos to the idea. People photograph flat-lays of their bag vomit. They videotape themselves Mary-Poppins-ing all sorts of things out of their bags. They span from large suitcases to tiny clutches. These are semi-curated displays of what we hide away. What we put away to try to appear neat and tidy and oh so put together. The Lost Properties of Love feels like this. A piece of exhibitionism. A contemplative shout of sorts saying look at all of us! Look at me! Look at what I have lost, but look at what is still here!
I want to propose that this book is a work of feminism. Is it still bold to throw that word around? Has it just a catchall term for something made by a woman who has dared to take up space? Previously, when I’ve thought about feminist writing, I have thought of it as loud and maybe with a hot pink title. Those things are great, and I love those things. A movement needs loud voices and shouting to be heard. But I also think there’s a need for quieter voices that are continually adding to the conversation. Voices that reinforce and help to establish a new status quo. I in no way want to downplay the potential impact of this book. This is just to say this book isn’t a blast but more of a quiet rumble.
The Lost Properties of Love doesn’t get to be a feminist book solely because it is written by a woman. For me, it’s a feminist book because it ponders old ways of thinking. A woman takes centre stage and considers her roles in life, the ones she has been given and the ones she has chosen–of course, there is overlap. When a woman decides to get married or to have a child, there is generational baggage and a truckload of domestic expectations. How is one to be a wife, or a mother, or a professor, or themselves? How much can be added to one's identity? How far can it be stretched? These are the things Ratcliffe writes about.
Ratcliffe reinterprets Anna Karenina, a woman created by a man who is potentially inspired by another man’s conglomerate of a woman he loved, through the lens of a woman. She gives name to the real Kate Field, a woman partially formed in many of Trollope’s works. Ratcliffe reminds us of Tolstoy’s wife. The Lost Properties of Love gives voices to women that help us to understand the complexities of being a woman in the past and the present.
Last spring, Chrissy Teigen tweeted candidly about her experience with postpartum depression. While other celebrities such as Brooke Shields had been talking about their postpartum experiences for a while, Teigen’s tweets seemed to resonate in a way that this conversation hadn’t before. It resonated very publicly. It seems as though women are feeling as though it’s more acceptable to discuss the complexities of motherhood without being accused of not loving their child. There’s a public admittance that it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s an interesting conversation to be having in a time of highly curated online lives. Nonetheless, the act of writing about motherhood in an honest way feels like an act of feminism. And it’s what Ratcliffe does in her book. She grapples with the responsibilities of being a mother, loving her children, trying to be herself and to understand all that she has lost along the way.
To say this book is feminist because it talks about motherhood would be to undercut the rest of the book that isn’t about motherhood.
To say this book is feminist because it talks about motherhood would be to undercut the rest of the book that isn’t about motherhood. The Lost Properties of Love tells, in a very honest way, what it is like to be a woman who has come of age during a shift in ideologies. For the last century, women have had jobs and have become more accepted into the public sphere. But there’s still a long way to go as there are still societal expectations of women and how they should behave. Ratcliffe adds to the narrative of the ‘modern woman’ by simply telling us about her life. The more we read about a ‘normal woman’s’ experiences, the more normalized her actions, which may have at one time seemed radical, become and this contributes to a shift in society’s interpretation of what a woman should be. It’s a lot to consider. But it’s all about the details of many women’s lives changing the perception of normal.
Maybe this is a feminist book because it has a tampon on the front. Maybe that’s its little shout.
The Lost Properties of Love is a must-read.
The Lost Properties of Love is a must-read. It is a read for anyone who is a mother who has grieved the loss of self while feelings waves of unconditional love. It is for anyone who has tried to live two lives at once through an affair or by escaping, even for a moment, onto a train. It is for anyone who has lost but still loved. Even if by some hand of fate you are none of those things, this book can remind you of the joy of reading and making connections while you explore the possibilities of storytelling. There is a sense of capturing a universally understood feeling.