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Am reading the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer at the moment being halfway through the second book. While reading the first one, got now and then my eyebrows raised at the language of the book. But the following has had me completely at a loss—I simply can't get my head round it:

"I don't remember."

Her constant use of those words had begun to grate. [...]

"Are you sure?" Of course she was sure.

"I think I would remember forgetting that."

When Control met her gaze now, it was always to the slightly upraised corners of her mouth, eyes that had a light in them so different from the last session. [...]

"This isn't a joke," he said, deciding to see how she would react if he seemed irritated. Except he really was irritated.

Google does not know such a locution. Somebody, please, parse it to me!

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    Good question, but you've rejected two good answers, each from a native speaker, if I'm not mistaken. The preposition to there could be paraphrased "accompanied by" or "in concert with". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 28 '18 at 22:05
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    Yes, it is a little unusual, met her gaze ... to the slightly upraised corners of her mouth. The complement of the preposition to strikes me as a little odd there in that the complement (when to has this meaning) is usually something ongoing whereas "the slightly upraised corners of her mouth" is an iconic image. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 28 '18 at 22:14
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Imagine this: Two people love each other. They fight. They break up. Then, they sometimes see each other in public places. This can be described as a past action in the following way:

Now, when John saw her, it was always a reminder of times past.

I prefer to put the now up front to make it easier to understand.

The expression: it was always means: this always occurred. The to is just describing the situation.

  • Now, when John saw her, it was always to the sound of violins playing.

The to is not part of the "it was always". To means: accompanied by or occurring at the same time as what precedes it.

  • I have dinner to the sound of music.
  • They play loud music to the annoyance of their neighbors.

In your sentence, it means: the slightly upturned corners of her mouth happened when he met her gaze.

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    @MvLog It's an idiomatic expression and this answer explains it well. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Aug 28 '18 at 22:02
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    @MvLog Google is not a be-all-and-end-all of knowledge. And just because a search on it doesn't find something, that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. I've been hearing and reading it was to the X for as long as I can remember. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Aug 28 '18 at 22:06
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    @MvLog "Everytime I walked past the door of her apartment, it was always to the sound of loud music." – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Aug 28 '18 at 22:14
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    @MvLog: part of the problem with your searches is because the structure is not "it was always to". The structure is "it was always". The "to" is part of another sentence structure: "to her smile". The common usage of this structure of "to" can be used without "it was always". For example: "I woke up .... to her smile". – slebetman Aug 29 '18 at 3:05
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    @MvLog perhaps there was some temporary glitch, or you have something in your google settings that is affecting your results. I get "About 3.950.000 results" for that search (this page already being the top result! But there's no shortage of others) – Chris H Aug 29 '18 at 7:04
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I find that sentence rather awkward, and I'm not surprised you found it hard to parse. Allow me to expand the context a bit for other people encountering this question.

"I don't remember."

Her constant use of those words had begun to grate. [...]

"Are you sure?" Of course she was sure.

"I think I would remember forgetting that."

When Control met her gaze now, it was always to the slightly upraised corners of her mouth, eyes that had a light in them so different from the last session. [...]

"This isn't a joke," he said, deciding to see how she would react if he seemed irritated. Except he really was irritated.

The context is that now, in this session (in contrast to the previous session), whenever Control meets her gaze he sees "the slightly upraised corners of her mouth" and a light in her eyes. His response, "This isn't a joke", shows that he feels she isn't taking the interview seriously.

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    +1 I've read the book and this is exactly what's happening. She always seems to be finding their interaction humorous and it's starting to annoy him. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Aug 28 '18 at 22:07
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    I prefer this answer to the accepted one. Furthermore, I'll go so far as to say the sentence is flawed. When you meet someone's gaze, you're looking directly into their eyes and nowhere else. – MackTuesday Aug 29 '18 at 3:16
  • One thing is what the French call explication de texte, another is an attempt to show how the structure works. Saying what it means is not so difficult. Showing someone how they can re-use the structure is. – Lambie Sep 3 '18 at 14:12
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The reason you're having difficulty here is because this is a terribly written sentence. The problem is that the author is treating the subject of "to" in the phrase "it was always to" as like an actual thing, in this case, "the slightly upraised corners of her mouth." This phrase almost always requires the subject of "to" to instead be the ACTION of something, so "always to the sound of the playing of violins", or "always to the sound of violins playing".

Actually I recognize there, that the subject of that is also a "thing", a "sound", like in the first example, instead of an action, like "the playing of", or something, but whatever. It's a weird phrase anyways. This has confused me writing this, but it should be known that this is a poorly written sentence.

First of all the writer is saying the meeting of two people's gaze is always accompanied by something to do with a mouth, which is incredibly confusing since they are both things that occur on a person's face, and could necessarily be gazed at (when I met her gaze I would always just look at her upraised corners of her mouth or something) in the process of gazing. But that isn't even what the author is trying to say. They're trying to say that two people gaze at each other and one of the people's mouths makes a movement AT THE SAME TIME. In this case, the phrase should be

"When Control met her gaze now, it was always to a slight rise (ACTION!) in the corners of her mouth"

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