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The Chemistry of Tears Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 15, 2012
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An automaton, a man and a woman who can never meet, two stories of loveâall are brought to incandescent life in this hauntingly moving novel from one of the finest writers of our time.Â
London 2010: Catherine Gehrig, conservator at the Swinburne museum, learns of the sudden death of her colleague and lover of thirteen years. As the mistress of a married man, she must struggle to keep the depth of her anguish to herself. The one other person who knows Catherine’s secretâher bossâarranges for her to be given a special project away from prying eyes in the museum’s Annexe. Usually controlled and rational, but now mad with grief, Catherine reluctantly unpacks an extraordinary, eerie automaton that she has been charged with bringing back to life.
As she begins to piece together the clockwork puzzle, she also uncovers a series of notebooks written by the mechanical creature’s original owner: a nineteenth-century Englishman, Henry Brandling, who traveled to Germany to commission it as a magical amusement for his consumptive son. But it is Catherine, nearly two hundred years later, who will find comfort and wonder in Henry’s story. And it is the automaton, in its beautiful, uncanny imitation of life, that will link two strangers confronted with the mysteries of creation, the miracle and catastrophe of human invention, and the body’s astonishing chemistry of love and feeling.
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The Chemistry of Tears is a fairly quick and easy read. The protagonist, Catherine Gehrig works as a conservator at a London museum who is distraught upon the sudden death of her older lover. Her boss kindly reassigns her to a project to work on the restoration of a duck automaton.
From there, the story becomes a dual narrative alternating between the present day Catherine dealing with her grief while wrestling with the puzzle of the automaton and an English gentleman,Henry Brandling, who commissioned the construction of the mechanical duck in a remote German town in the 1850’s.
The book explores some interesting themes including how the loss of a loved one can expose the emotional safety net that a long term relationship can provide and the challenge of forging a new path -with the support of the odd bottle of vodka! However, this reader did not become emotionally invested in the characters and the narrative impact therefore fell short.
In PARROT AND OLIVIER IN AMERICA, Carey showed his ability to write -- and subvert -- the traditional historical novel. But the elements of art and fantasy that tinted that earlier book are given fuller rein here, despite a framing story that theoretically keeps its feet on the ground. Catherine Gehrig is a rationalist. A horologist at the fictional Swinburne Museum in London, her job is to catalogue and restore rare mechanical objects. But she has become unmoored by the unexpected death of a colleague, with whom she had been conducting a secret affair for years. Her boss gives her a project to distract her: the restoration of what turns out to be a mechanical silver swan, built in the Black Forest in the 1850s. Accompanying the pieces of the automaton are a series of diaries by the patron who commissioned the object, an Englishman called Henry Brandling, looking for a toy duck to restore life to his dying son. His journey to Southwest Germany brings him into contact with an extraordinary individual called Sumper, who virtually hijacks his project because he feels it is his sacred mission to build him something better.
Seen as a piece of straight narrative, this book would be rather a mess. Carey crams a lot into it, from Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine (a forerunner of the computer), through the invention of the internal combustion engine, to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. But I don't think it IS meant to be taken straight. Having just come from reading Italo Calvino, I must admit to a tendency to read everything as though it were surreal, but all the same I see a deliberate excess in Catherine's language, and certainly in her behavior, as she purloins precious objects to study them at home, and gives in to drinking and uncontrolled mood swings. Gradually, the alternating chapters headed "Catherine" and "Henry" are interspersed with others entitled "Catherine & Henry," as the two grief-stricken narrators virtually combine.
We are no longer in straight historical novel territory here, even the relative clarity of split-period novels such as Simon Mawer's MENDEL'S DWARF. The manner is much more like Peter Ackroyd's CASEBOOK OF VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN or even more his HAWKSMOOR. There were moments when I felt the shadow of Kazuo Ishiguro, or Paul Auster, or Orhan Pamuk. This is relatively new territory for Carey, and I don't know that he has mastered it yet. But he writes well. "The sky was black and bleeding like a Rothko," he says of an approaching London storm. Later on, one of his characters references the painter in defense of the aesthetic of ambiguity: "Without ambiguity you have Agatha Christie, a sort of aesthetic whodunnit. But look at any Rothko. You can look and look but you never get past the ambiguities of colour, and form, and surface." The first step in Catherine Gehrig's healing is her acceptance of ambiguity. It may be a frustrating process for the reader, but I did find it an interesting one.
Generally, I enjoy books that connect and juxtapose protagonists through time or circumstance. However, the description of both sets of lives lacked 'meatiness' and clarity in my opinion.