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An Experiment in Love Hardcover – May, 1996

30 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews Review

Hilary Mantel's seventh novel examines the pressures on women during the 1960s to excel--but not be too successful--in England's complex hierarchy of class and status. Pushed by a domineering mother, Carmel McBain climbs her way through the pecking order and ends up at London University as an acquiescent and undernourished teenager, achieving the status so desired by her mother, but too weak to make use of it or pose a threat to anyone. Though this is Carmel's story, it reflects on a generation of girls desiring the power of men, but fearful of abandoning what is expected and proper.

From Publishers Weekly

Carmel McBain is a bright Lancashire-Irish child whose mother is fond of telling her, "your father's not just a clerk, you know"-though, in fact, he is. As Carmel grows up, this snobbish tendency metamorphoses into the brutal driving force of the girl's young life. As a teenager, with ambition bullied into her, she alternates between nights spent locked in her room to study and days filled with the "routine sarcasms of nuns." Carmel's move from posh convent to London university is a lonely one; at school, she undergoes a disturbing loss of self-awareness. Between her mother's ruthlessness and the cruelties of the nuns, Carmel's self-worth has been damaged, with near fatal results. Mantel's seventh novel (but only her second to appear here, after A Place of Greater Safety, 1993) is a powerful coming-of-age story that meticulously highlights the patterns of self-inflicted cruelty sometimes taught to young women. It perfectly conveys the confusion of one contemporary Catholic girl, and provides a subtly moving take on the mystery of anorexia nervosa. Despite its grim subject, the writing, replete with sharp humor and evocative details of 1960s England, is never self-indulgent. Irony prevails stoutly over sentimentality, while the finale delivers a surprising twist of horror that will shake readers to the core.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 250 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt & Co; 1st American ed edition (May 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805044272
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805044270
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 6 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #914,023 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Hilary Mantel is the author of nine previous novels, including A Change of Climate, A Place of Greater Safety, and Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. She has also written a memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. Winner of the Hawthornden Prize, she reviews for The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and the London Review of Books. She lives in England.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 28 people found the following review helpful By David J. Gannon on June 30, 1998
Format: Paperback
"An experiment in Love" is, ultimately, a novel about the various forms of imprisionment family, society and religion can place uopn the individual.
Carmel McBain is the daughter of a lower class English family. She is imprisioned at home by a domineering mother who makes a point of "doing everything" for her daughter while chiding her for being useless. She is constrained at school by her mother's high, harsh, expectations of academic excellence. She is engulfed in between by the inescapable "friendship" proximity and her mothers desires have forced her into with a neighbor and classmate whom she doesn't care for and with whom she has nothing in common.
Her academic success lands her in a highly regarded local Catholic girls prep school where she is again paired with her "friend" and further buffeted by the expectations, traditions and social constraints cointained within that environment.
Finally, at college in London, her "friend" still in tow, along with another classmate from the prep school, Carmel, though seemingly free of the constraints that dominated her childhood, cannot, in fact, sever those bonds. She is now sufficiently free, however, to analyze her situation, as well as those of her classmates, and can see, if not overcome, the various results that these limitations and expectations have had on her and her various classmates. The effects are often severe: Sexual abandon and the consequences those acts engender in a traditional, paternalistic society; Illness (particularly anorexia); and, in the end, a particular act of revenge/release with very grave effects and consequences.
Although not a book for the faint of heart, this nevertheless stands as a extraordinary piece of storytelling and social/psychological examination of the anomie often engendered within families in our modern society.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Judith Miller VINE VOICE on August 14, 2004
Format: Paperback
I read AN EXPERIMENT IN LOVE because I had read FLUDD by this author and thought that it was an amazing and interesting story. Also, the reviews are quite good.

This is a very original story that makes you think and remember your own childhood. Carmel McBain, the main character is the only child of working class parents who want the best for her. Unfortunately, her mother is overbearing and almost kills the spirit and life of her daughter. Carmel is constantly told what her parents have given up for her and what their expectations are. Her life, rigidly controlled by her mother, includes the nagging pressure to always be among the top of her class. Carmel would like to participate in helping around the house and other activities, but the constraint that her mother uses won't allow it. Carmel is to spend all of her time studying so that she can be accepted in the best schools

Mrs. McBain unfairly compares Carmel to Karina, a girl from the neighborhood and Carmel's schoolmate. Karina is the daughter of immigrants and has a lot of duties and responsibilities at home. The two girls don't really like each other, but are thrown together by their mothers. Karina knows what to say to parents and teachers, but to Carmel she is vicious and nasty. She's a person who we've all met somewhere in our lives, who tell those in authority exactly what they want to hear and then makes snide remarks to their peers.

Carmel makes other friends, but Karina is always lurking in the background of her life. Unfortunately, she's saddled with Karina for most of her school years. Carmel suffers more than her share of the agonies of growing up. Eventually, something has to give and it does with a sad price.

It's one of those books that the reader gets the idea about what's going on, but nothing is ever completely explained. I have a thousand questions that I'd like to ask the author.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Luan Gaines HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on July 28, 2007
Format: Paperback
Mantel's novel of 1960s London fairly aches with the awakening of young womanhood confronted with the incipient sexual revolution. The security of the past rejected for the prospects of a future filled with sexual freedom, the pill and control over one's body, the implications are almost staggering. For Carmel McBain, product of a strict Catholic school upbringing, the choices are daunting. Constraint built into her psyche, she attempts to balance the lessons of a painful childhood with a new identity that affords a wider view of the world at large. In contrast to her unrestricted appreciation of life's potential, albeit within monetary and class limits, Carmel's body pays the price of her family's financial situation. At no time does she enjoy the excesses of abundance, either in material goods or the amount of food she is forced to subsist on. It becomes a forced march, this rigorous schooling at Towbridge Hall, denying herself in order to achieve her goals. Barely aware of her descent, Carmel slips into the nether world of anorexia, self-denial a common condition.

Rooming with a girl who is her polar opposite, Carmel views Julianne Lipcott as the embodiment of worldliness, sporting a cavalier attitude that serves her well, Julianne afforded the luxury of watching others suffer while she looks on. The girls live out their tribulations under Julianne's observant eye, relieving her of the necessity of personal experience. Although the two girls have attended Holy Redeemer School together, a daunting feat for Carmel's elderly, bitter parents, it is the third person in this unholy trilogy that haunts Carmel's emotional development. Karina has been a burden since their earliest years, a plump, unattractive, gluttonous girl much favored by Carmel's mother.
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