34 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What a tease!
Peter Carey is a voice man. He writes different voices very well, and puts them to good use in telling compelling stories. In The Chemistry Of Tears, Carey tells two interwoven stories - that of Catherine Gehrig, a modern day museum conservator grieving the loss of Matthew, her adulterous lover and that of Henry Brandling, a Victorian eccentric travelling to Germany to...
Published 20 months ago by MisterHobgoblin
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars lacking real chemistry
I saw a positive review of this book on Newsnight and decided it was worth a read. I was wrong. The dual narrative of the 'conservator' mourning her lover who is given the task of restoring this mechanical wonder and that of Henry Fielding, the original 19th century patron searching for the mechanical miracle cure for his sickly son started out ok but I just couldn't care...
Published 19 months ago by Cromarty Forth Tyne
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34 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What a tease!,
This review is from: The Chemistry of Tears (Kindle Edition)Peter Carey is a voice man. He writes different voices very well, and puts them to good use in telling compelling stories. In The Chemistry Of Tears, Carey tells two interwoven stories - that of Catherine Gehrig, a modern day museum conservator grieving the loss of Matthew, her adulterous lover and that of Henry Brandling, a Victorian eccentric travelling to Germany to commission a clockwork duck for his ailing son. The trick, when Carey tells his interwoven stories, is to make each narrative more interesting than the other. Here he scores admirably: the reader is rudely torn away from one engrossing narrative but within a few lines in totally rapt in the alternating story.
Catherine's story is heartbreaking. Unable to publicly grieve the loss of her lover, the curator of the Swinburne Museum (presumably a V&A Museum lookalike) sends her off to a backroom to unpack tea chests containing a special project. As she begins to unpack, she discovers Henry Brandling's notebooks and various mechanical parts that need cleaning and re-assembling - presumably the duck. The restoration is absorbing, described in great detail but always in an accessible way, but the real joy is in the secondary characters. The curator, Eric Croft, is a Delphic figure - he knows about Catherine's affair; he has all sorts of hidden agenda which allows him to drip feed knowledge into conversations. He plays games with people, but gives the impression of being a benign force. Then there is Amanda, a young apprentice conservator set to work alongside Catherine - perhaps to keep an eye on her. There are other great cameos - particularly from Matthew's grown up children who fail to reassure Catherine that she didn't take their father away from them. Catherine is flaky, upset and emotional. As she delves into Henry Brandling's notebooks she forms a bond with him; she believes she has a special insight and is bewildered when others seem to understand more than her based on less information. She is truly adrift in a vodka haze.
Then there is Henry Brandling's story. The notebooks show he journeyed off to Germany where his brother had assured him that all but the peasants spoke perfect English - only to discover that everyone he met was a peasant. Even in Karlsruhe. He wanders the streets with plans for a clockwork duck which would move, eat, lay eggs and even defecate - and a purse full of money. Just as Catherine failed to understand her surroundings, Henry is similarly lost with no sense of situational awareness and no German. He is therefore easy prey for Herr Sumper, a rather intimidating clock maker who does, at least, speak fluent English. We fear for Henry.
There is a real sense of fun in watching Henry's ideas and observations that he recorded on the page becoming real under a century of grime in the tea chests. But this makes one wonder about the many stories of ancient riddles being set and solved many decades later by the persevering sleuth. In reality, the little puzzles, gestures and such like will die with those who made them. Would anyone really preserve Brandling's notebooks, read them in detail, seek verification of his arcane observations? Would anyone pay close enough attention to take joy in finding Sumper's receipt for the glass rods? Perhaps we like to read about these puzzles in the hope that one day people will take the time and trouble to examine our lives and relics in such detail.
The Chemistry of Tears is not the most original work. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Benjamin Markovits's excellent Syme Papers which also features a modern scholar unearthing details of a collaboration between a crackpot inventor and his (German) financial backer. However, it never feels as though Peter Carey is striving for originality - he is simply telling a good story very well. The voices positively sing. The detailing is exquisite - every bit the equal of the silver-smithing of the Black Forest. The contrast between 2010 and 1858 works well - the links are subtle when it would have been too easy to make them heavy handed. Whilst there are similarities in Catherine's grief and Henry's loss of a daughter, the two situations have such a different feel, with 2010 feeling mundane and 1858 feeling wildly surreal. The two voices are so different too; Catherine's whining contrasting with Henry's unfounded optimism. But most of all, there is the lop-sided nature of the relationship which enables Catherine to know Henry whilst Henry can never know anything of Catherine. There is really a great deal going on under the surface.
If there is one nagging doubt, it is that the ending comes rather suddenly. It's almost as though there was a missing third of the book which failed to survive the editing process. It's not a big thing and it makes the novel feel quite tight - almost parsimonious.
The final pages cry out for a major revelation and it's isn't quite clear whether Peter Carey has given us one or not. What a tease he is!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Light the leaves and pyre wood, because nothing can hurt more than this.",
This review is from: The Chemistry of Tears (Hardcover)(4.5 stars) Although he has often dealt with the themes of identity, reality, and what it means to be human, Australian author Peter Carey creates a new approach to these ideas in this complex and sometimes strange novel with two overlapping narratives set one hundred fifty years apart. Catherine Gehrig, a Curator of Horology (clockwork) at the Swinburne Museum in London, has led a secret life for thirteen years, enjoying an affair with Matthew Tindall, the married Head Curator of Metals. On April 21, 2010, she arrives at work to discover that Matthew is dead, and that she is apparently the last to know. Frantic with grief, she cannot even imagine how to go on with her life without Matthew.
Head Curator of Horology, Eric Croft, arranges for her to take sick leave and then to move to the privacy of the museum's Annexe in Olympia, where she will have a special job - to go through eight boxes filled with assorted gears, screws, and machine parts, along with assorted papers associated with an automaton of a duck from the mid-1850s, then restore it. When Catherine discovers notebooks in the boxes, she introduces the second narrative, a detailed diary which opens in June, 1854, and features a style of writing compatible with the period. Henry Brandling, a wealthy Englishman with an invalid son believes that if he can find someone to make an amusing duck automaton based on the real plans for "Vaucanson's duck," made in the eighteenth century, that Percy will be filled with "magnetic agitation," which will help him conquer his disease. Brandling travels to Germany to Schwarzwald to find a clockmaker who will make the automaton.
Within this unique and fascinating framework, Carey explores many different aspects of reality and what makes humans unique. Automatons seem real, and the more complex the machinery is, the more "real" they seem, ironically. Henry Brandling does not know if the people he has hired are being honest with him and whether he will ever actually see the toy he has already paid for. Sumper, the man who is ultimately in charge of the task, meets Brandling at the inn the night he arrives, but he already knows who he is and why Brandling is there, adding an element of mystery and otherworldliness to what has seemed so far a fairly straightforward tale. Monsieur Arnaud, who works with Sumper, collects fairy tales. Catherine's view of her own reality also changes as the restoration work continues.
While all this is going on, other motifs arise and continue, and these are sometimes mystifying since they do not feel completely integrated into the narrative: a playing card showing the "deep order" of the city of Karlsruhe, a sketch of the city arranged as a perfect circle; stories about Sir Albert Cruickshank, a mathematician who developed an early adding machine and a primitive computer; Samper's creation of a satiric automaton of Jesus Christ for Cruickshank; and eventually, the BP gulf oil spill, which began the day that Matthew died, leading to the question of "Who made the machine that kills the ocean?" Fewer of these motifs would have strengthened the narrative and the themes, for this reader at least.
The great dialogue, unusual subject matter, important themes treated in unique ways, and characters who engage our interest make this a story to celebrate, but the narrative, though wildly creative, is weakened when all these competing elements and motifs are introduced as parallels and overlapping images. There is much to ponder here. Perhaps a bit too much. Mary Whipple
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lovely prose but one story engaged me more than the other,
This review is from: The Chemistry of Tears (Hardcover)As he has done before on several occasions, Peter Carey offers us two parallel stories in his intriguingly titled "The Chemistry of Tears". The two elements of the title reflect that this is a book about grief, but also about science. It's also a book about human's relationship with machines and dependence that we have grown to have on them, and the ugliness of life and the beauty of, at least some, machines. In one strand of the story, Catherine is a modern day horologist working in a London museum whose world is shattered by the death of a married colleague with whom she was having an affair. Put to work on restoring a mysterious clockwork bird, she discovers the journals of Henry Brandling, the nineteenth century wealthy man who commissioned the construction of the toy for his consumptive son.
Catherine's story line is by far the most straightforward of the two and is set in a world that is simpler to understand than many of Carey's characters find themselves in. As often with his characters though, she is not particularly likable and yet he manages to make us feel for her plight. She is completely unapologetic about her affair and has no thought for the widow or her two sons. Her behaviour to her well-meaning boss is vile, and her drunken antics including removing items from the museum for her own personal study at home is, at best, unprofessional. She has no real friends, and it's not hard to see why. However her story is the more compelling of the two and Carey's prose is excellent particularly in observing the small details and it is this thread that provides what narrative propulsion there is here.
There's always a danger with parallel stories that the reader will favour one at the expense of the other. The best books manage to balance this, but here, the parallel story is an altogether different beast to the Catherine thread. It's much harder to understand and is a more difficult read entirely. In some ways, this is more conventional Carey territory, full of escapades and complexity, but it only shone in patches for me. In fact, Catherine herself sums it up best late on in the book when she narrates about reading Henry's journals, "[I]n fact you soon learned that what was initially confusing would never be clarified no matter how you stared and swore at it". I was glad it wasn't just me then.
And yet it is this nineteenth century element that contains some of the most intriguing elements of the book. Henry's journey to find someone to build his automaton takes him to Germany where he encounters the strange Herr Sumper whose previous employment has been with an Englishman by the name of Cruickshank who would appear to be a representation of that pioneer of programmable computing, Charles Babbage, who Carey acknowledges in the book. This raises ideas about the difference of machines and souls and is more in line with Carey's usual fare of big ideas.
I never felt drawn in to the Henry thread, and while there is the usual dazzling prose from Carey, I couldn't escape the feeling that Catherine does more of the work in a book that should have been more equal. It also frustratingly hints at ideas which are not really developed. Cruickshank's calculating machine was never completed because he was under-funded, while Henry is at least initially well funded and spends his wealth on a mere toy. One of Cruickshank's ideas was to save lives by mapping the seabed and this is contrasted with the modern day oil spill disaster, presumably the BP spill, where technology has destroyed marine life rather than saved human life. It's less clear what Carey wishes us to make of all this.
The ending is also a disappointment. It's sudden and not particularly satisfying. I'm all for writers who expect the reader to do some of the work, but I wished Carey had developed these things a little more. Carey is always worth reading for the quality of his writing and only a fool would suggest that he won't again feature on this year's Booker list, but for me, the I was drawn more to the quality of the writing than to the plot and that's not ideal.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars lacking real chemistry,
This review is from: The Chemistry of Tears (Hardcover)I saw a positive review of this book on Newsnight and decided it was worth a read. I was wrong. The dual narrative of the 'conservator' mourning her lover who is given the task of restoring this mechanical wonder and that of Henry Fielding, the original 19th century patron searching for the mechanical miracle cure for his sickly son started out ok but I just couldn't care about the conservator.
The more interesting part of the narrative was indeed Henry making his way to a far-flung corner of present-day Germany to find someone who could build him this mechanical wonder but the present-day narrative just fell flat. I found myself not really caring what was happening to Catherine (the conservator) and her bereavement over her colleague/lover. Too much wallowing in self-pity and drink. Also, I work in a national museum and I can safely say, curators/conservators just wouldn't be so selfish and self-centred when it comes to precious items. Taking anything out of a museum unauthorised, would just not happen so I just didn't believe she could get away with that kind of thing.
Overall, the story, which is the key thing for me, just didn't work. It may be well written and technically brilliant or whatever else Peter Carey is supposed to be but in essence, this book, this narrative - just didn't have that chemistry that makes good storytelling a joy to become immersed in. I have to disagree with Andrew Motion on the back cover when he compares Peter Carey to Charles Dickens. Not in a million years! For me anyway.
20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another wonderful book,
This review is from: The Chemistry of Tears (Hardcover)Another superb and very intriguing book from Peter Carey.
The emotional turmoil of the two characters, locked into personal struggles with love and loss, in two different centuries, is handled with great finesse. As always he finds connections and parallels between his two characters and much empathy as well as anger. He skillfully uses a structure, one he's used before, of two points of view that dovetail to tell the story. The narrative has an effortless forward motion.
You would not expect anything else from Carey who truly is, as Andrew Motion says on the back cover blurb, one of our greatest living writers (I paraphrase).
I love his prose style, clean and clear with quirky bits. Well worth buying, hard to put down and over too soon.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Even worse than his last,
This review is from: The Chemistry of Tears (Hardcover)Peter Carey's a wonderful author! I loved "True History of The Kelly Gang" and "Theft, a Love Story"! But this one's even worse than "Parrott and Olivier in America"! As with that, there are 2 voices narrating, and here there are 2 eras portrayed. Altogether 2 tricksy! The modern narrator's immediacy is appealing, and her grief is all too believable. The other narrator's a fusty old bloke who's being made a fool of by everyone he knows, and is a bore to boot.. I lost interest in the "automaton" that they have in common, failed to take wing for me. And it grinds to an inconclusive ending with the cranking of gears, and a sigh of relief from me. Write another one quick, and make if it funny!
19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mechanical marvels and raw emotions,
This review is from: The Chemistry of Tears (Hardcover)In this short gripping novel Peter Carey constructs a delightful conspiratorial confection which has pleasing hints of Thomas Pynchon and Lawrence Norfolk. It is the second significant novel this year in which the narrator is the grandson of a London clockmaker: but apart from that the approach is very different to Nick Harkaway in Angelmaker.
Carey, as in Parrot and Olivier in America, has two narrators, but here one is contemporary and female. Her raw emotional state of bereavement, and the fraught relationships which she has with her colleagues, portray an edgy view of life behind the scenes at the imaginary museum of clockwork and automata. There is a wider background of environmental catastrophe and cultural fragmentation, and it becomes clear that her project is vital as the museum struggles to survive the financial difficulties posed by the current government.
The nineteenth century narrator is an equally vulnerable character, in a mould that will be familiar to readers of Carey's earlier novels. He is far from home, overseeing the commissioning of an animated duck, which will be magical, but will also hint at a future of computing and of motorisation, where three dimensional cams and "specially contrived axles and bevelled gears" will rule the day. Carey resolves his parallel plot with aplomb, but not without an appropriately tantalising hint of mystery and even conspiracy.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The Chemistry of Tears of Boredom,
This review is from: The Chemistry of Tears (Paperback)I didn't really see the point of this book, to be honest. It is a little postmodern in the sense that people from different places in history are connected to each other by a manuscript and a machine. It could be seen as an example of science in fiction due to the machine that acts as the story's maguffin. In short, it has a little bit of everything that I have encountered multiple times in contemporary fiction, but sadly does not seem to do anything original. Maybe I'm being harsh. I know a lot of people like and respect Carey's fiction, but it just wasn't this reviewer's cup of tea.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Quackers,
This review is from: The Chemistry of Tears (Hardcover)Employed as a conservator at a London museum with a world-famous collection of clocks and wind-up machines, blue-stocking Catherine is grief-stricken over the death of her work colleague and not-so-secret lover Matthew. Her manipulative line manager Eric tries to distract her with the task of reassembling what seems to be a mechanical duck, commissioned in the 1850s by the wealthy (when he is allowed access to the family money) Henry Brandling, who is convinced the "automaton" will aid the recovery of his sickly son. Catherine becomes totally absorbed in the handwritten journals kept by the eccentric Henry on his lengthy trip to Germany to obtain the duck.
The "Catherine chapters" held my attention from the outset. I liked the acerbic take on Barbara Pym "voice", and the very convincing and often moving portrayal of how Catherine is devastated by loss which Carey manages to convey alongside some very entertaining scenes.
The Henry chapters were a different matter. I accept that he may be bordering on insane, and encounters some even nuttier people, in particular the automaton-maker Sumper with his for me tedious accounts of the perhaps even more eccentric designer of such machines, Cruickshank. These chapters have a dreamlike quality, verging at times on nightmare, and Henry's account is often fragmented and lacking in context.
I would have been totally at sea without Google to explain the Victorian obsession with automata, and the various references to smoking monkeys and Vaucanson's "Digesting Duck" plus the Silver Swan on view at Bowes Museum, all of which clearly inspired this novel.
I think Carey is exploring the incongruity, for atheists and rationalists, of how grief is expressed through the chemical reactions of, say, shedding tears, while a cleverly made robotic machine may arouse fear and confusion with "its uncanny lifelike movements". An added twist is how machines, especially the combustion engine, have transformed our lives but may lead to our destruction by pollution - including this aspect as well may be over-ambitious.
Only the relative shortness of this book, Carey's status as a twice Man Booker Prize Winner, and my admiration for his recent "Parrot and Olivier in America" gave me the incentive to persevere. I agree that the ending proves rather abrupt, plus for me it includes a couple of implausible twists which I found hard to take.
I can see why some reviewers have found the novel pretentious. I'm inclined to think that Carey simply lets his imagination roam free, his fame relieving him of any need to kowtow to agents or editors. He makes no concessions to readers, leaving us to extract the brilliant writing and sharp insights from the at times confusing morass.
It was only on reflection after finishing the book that I decided the choice of ending is quite effective, and that overall it is worth reading.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Odd,
This review is from: The Chemistry of Tears (Kindle Edition)I purchased this as we were reading at book club. From reading the blurb I thought I would really enjoy it. I really enjoyed half of it - the parts with Catherine in where interesting and well written - her grief was brilliantly portrayed and felt very real. However, interspaced with this was a very confusing story about Henry which didnt really make much sense and felt a bit interuptive.
Interesting book but I feel it could have been laid out much better.
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The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey (Hardcover - 5 April 2012)
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