Chemistry of Tears (Carey)

The Chemistry of Tears
Peter Carey, 2012
Knopf Doubleday
240 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780307476081



Summary
When Catherine Gehrig, a museum conservator in London, falls into grief after her lover’s sudden death, her boss gives her a special project. She will bring back to “life” a nineteenth-century mechanical bird.

As she begins to piece the automaton together, Catherine also uncovers the diaries of Henry Brandling, who, more than a hundred years prior, had commissioned the bird for his very ill son. Catherine finds resonance and comfort in Henry’s story. But it is the mechanical creature itself, in its uncanny imitation of life, that will link these two people across a century.

Through the clockwork bird, Henry and Catherine will confront the mysteries of creation, the power of human invention, and the body’s astonishing chemistry of love and feeling. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—May 7, 1943
Where—Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, Australia
Education—Monash University
Awards—Booker Prize (twice); National Book Council Award;
  Commonealth Writers Prize (twice); Franklin Miles Award
  (thrice); Prix duMeilleur Livre Etranger; Colin Roderick Award
Currently—lives in New York City, New York, USA


"My fictional project has always been the invention or discovery of my own country," the prizewinning Australian author Peter Carey has said. This postcolonial undertaking has sometimes led Carey to wrestle with the great works of English literature: The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1994) draws on Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, while Jack Maggs (1997), a version of Dickens's Great Expectations, is told from the perspective of the convict who returns to England from Australia.

But although Carey went to what he calls "a particularly posh" Australian boarding school, he claims he didn't discover literature until he was out of school. He studied chemistry at Monash University for just a year before leaving to work in advertising. There, surrounded by readers and would-be writers, he discovered the great literature of the 20th century, including authors like Joyce, Faulkner and Beckett. "To read Faulkner for the first time was for me like discovering another planet," Carey said in an interview with The Guardian. "The pleasure of that language, the politics of giving voice to the voiceless."

Publishers rejected Carey's first three novels, so he began writing short stories. These, he later said, "felt like the first authentic things I had done." He was still working for an advertising agency when his first collection of short stories appeared in 1973, and he kept the part-time job after moving to an "alternative community" in Queensland. His first published novel, Bliss (1981), won a prestigious Australian literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award. The book is about an advertising executive who has a near-death experience and ends up living in a rural commune.

Carey's later novels ranged farther outside the bounds of his own experience, but he continued to develop his concern with Australian identity. 1988's Oscar and Lucinda, which tells the story of a colonial Australian heiress and her ill-fated love for an English clergyman, won the Booker Prize and helped establish Carey as one of the literary heavyweights of his generation. He won another Booker Prize for True History of the Kelly Gang (2000), the story of a notorious 19th-century outlaw whose legacy still shapes Australia's consciousness.

Though Carey now lives and teaches in New York City, his home country and its past still possess his imagination. ''History,'' he writes, ''is like a bloodstain that keeps on showing on the wall no matter how many new owners take possession, no matter how many times we paint over it.''

Extras
• Peter Carey and J. M. Coetzee are the only two-time Booker Prize winners to date.

• Carey caused a stir in the British press when he declined an invitation to meet Queen Elizabeth II. The royal invitation is extended to all winners of the Commonwealth Writers Prize, which Carey received in 1998 for Jack Maggs. He did meet the Queen after he won the award a second time, for True History of the Kelly Gang in 2001.

• Fans of Carey's work know that in 1997, Oscar and Lucinda was made into a critically acclaimed movie starring Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett. But they may not know that Carey wrote the screenplay for the critically panned Wim Wenders film Until the End of the World (1991) as well as the screenplay adaptation of his own novel, Bliss (1991). (From Barnes & Noble.)



Book Reviews
In an interview a few years ago, Carey spoke of admiring the quality of "risk" in works of fiction. This, I think, is exactly right, risk being an index of a book's and a writer's ambition. The Chemistry of Tears takes risks, is quietly ambitious and is, in its last pages, both touching and thought-provoking.
Andrew Miller - New York Times Book Review


Vividly rendered...Carey has given each story the chaotic quality of hallucination.... He shapes the two madnesses with imaginative intensity.
Boston Globe


Leave it to a protean virtuoso like Peter Carey to write a novel, The Chemistry of Tears, that draws compelling parallels between a Victorian-era automaton of a defecating duck and the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And, what’s more, to make of it another delightfully recondite tour-de-force performance.
Toronto Star


Characters that beguile and convince, prose that dances or is as careful as poetry, an inventive plot that teases and makes the heart quicken or hurt, paced with masterly precision, yet with a space for the ideas to breathe and expand in dialogue with the reader, unusual settings of place and time: this tender tour de force of the imagination succeeds on all fronts.
Independent (UK)


A writer of such sustained flair that he has, only two years after his Man Booker–shortlisted Parrot and Olivier in America, delivered another stylish tour de force.... With typical dogged panache, Carey’s exploration of technology and tears indicates that emotion defies rationalism’s impositions.
Daily Telegraph (UK)


Carey is one of the finest living writers in English. His best books satisfy both intellectually and emotionally; he is lyrical yet never forgets the imperative to entertain.... A wholly enjoyable journey.
Economist


For his new, briskly paced novel, The Chemistry of Tears, [Caret] has pulled off a nifty trick, offering interconnected plots set in two distinct eras.... Carey’s deft, spare prose is full of striking images.... [He] explores a series of interconnected themes that are admirably complex for such a short book. Richmond Times-Dispatch


A beautifully written, richly layered novel that includes treats like a meaningful, hidden message in Latin and a mysterious blue wooden block hidden inside the automaton.... Its graceful subtlety will keep you thinking long after you've closed the book.
Vancouver Sun


Catherine, a horologist at the Swinburne Museum, and curator Matthew Tindall carried on a secret affair for 13 years. After Matthew dies of a heart attack, Catherine’s boss assigns her a projec...when she discovers...11 notebooks filled by Englishman Henry Brandling in 1854. The narrative then shifts to Henry’s point-of-view with his discovery of the inventor Vaucanson’s plans for a mechanical duck, just the thing, Henry thinks, to make his young consumptive son, Percy, happy.... Carey (Parrot and Olivier in America) alternates between present-day Catherine’s progress with repairing the avian automaton and Henry’s notebooks, about which Catherine becomes more obsessed as Henry meets a mysterious and potentially dangerous craftsman who promises to build him his “heart’s desire.” Catherine and Henry, linked both by the automaton and by grief, ponder questions of life and death, questions that, as posed by Carey, are more fascinating than any solution.
Publishers Weekly


[T]he incomparable Carey returns with a story of secret grief assuaged. A museum conservator in London, Catherine learns that her lover and colleague has died but hides her pain because he was a married man. Her boss, the only person who knew of her affair, seeks to help by having her work alone on a project involving a 19th-century automaton. When she discovers the diaries of Henry Brandling, the man who built the automaton, she enters into an understanding of the desire for invention, the magic of creation, and the healing power of love.
Library Journal


A puzzling novel that doesn't reveal its secrets easily. The latest from the renowned and prolific Carey (Parrot and Olivier in America, 2010, etc.) is too fanciful to pass as realism yet too inscrutable for parable or fable. Though all of it (or at least half of it) concerns a grieving woman's attempt to re-engage with life after the death of her married lover, the prevailing spirit is comedic, even whimsical, rather than tragic. And the prevailing metaphor is that of clockwork, the mechanical precision of the museum where she serves as a curator.... For what it's worth, the thematic key would seem to be a Latin epigram, which translates, "You cannot see what you can see." It's a novel that will amuse or challenge some and frustrate others.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. We are told the story through two different narrators: Catherine Gehrig and Henry Brandling. Are they reliable?

2. How are the lives of Catherine and Henry similar? How do they differ, aside from their time periods and locations?

3. Why do you think Catherine is drawn to Henry’s story with such curiosity? Do you think her state of grief affects the way she reacts to his journals? If so, how?

4. How do grief and loss function in the novel as a whole? What are some of the ways Catherine and Henry—or any of the other characters—cope with grief in their lives? How does this affect the mood and atmosphere of the novel?

5. Catherine is a horologist, used to dealing with many fine mechanical parts. How is her personality suited to this? How is it not?

6. Despite difficult circumstances at home, Henry Brandling begins his trek as an optimist, even saying “Brandling would see the glass half full even when it lay in shards around his feet” (p. 55). Do you think Henry is naive? Or is this a useful attitude for him to take in the face of hardships?

7. Carl emerges as an interesting and important character, particularly to Henry. How do Henry, Herr Sumper, and Frau Helga each view Carl? How do you view Carl?

8. Were you surprised when Henry violently beats Sumper (p. 93)? Were there any earlier indications that Henry would be prone to such rage? How would you characterize Henry’s and Sumper’s reactions the following day?

9. What reactions did you have to the scene between Catherine and her lover’s sons? What do you make of Noah and Angus’s gift to Catherine?

10. How would you characterize Catherine’s relationship with Amanda? How does it compare with Henry’s relationship with Sumper?

11. Eric Croft plays a central role in many aspects of Catherine’s life, which leads her to call him “an awful meddler” (p. 176). Do you agree or disagree? Do you think his motives are selfless, or does he have his own agenda?

12. What do you think the title "The Chemistry of Tears" might refer to?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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