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4.0 out of 5 stars
4.0 out of 5 stars
An Experiment in Love
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 22 October 2015
This was the first book by Hilary Mantel I read, about two decades ago; it remains my favourite of all her novels and is perhaps her most approachable and accessible work. It follows the fortunes of three school friends during their early years at a northern Catholic school and their first year at a London university in 1970 - the narrator Carmel, the cool and urbane Julianne and the insular, malignant Karina.

Although this book may lack the grand scope of the author's historical fiction, her prose is as wonderful as ever, with its dark humour and trademark gift for conjuring uniquely apt images - who could possibly forget her description of a purse zip being opened in a hushed shop as sounding "like God farting"? It's also perhaps the most accurate, insightful, painfully amusing portrait of childhood I have ever read; the hopes, the fears, the casual cruelties, the embarrassment at parents' foibles, the mixture of awe and contempt for teachers...many acclaimed authors falter when it comes to creating child characters, but Hilary Mantel does it brilliantly.

For anyone curious about Mantel's work, I'd suggest this as a great place to start. I can clearly remember pressing this book upon all my friends after first reading it, and twenty years on I still recommend it unreservedly.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 18 September 2009
Carmel is an ordinary little Catholic girl from a Lancashire mill-town when this novel opens. Her strong-willed mother has decided that she will be a friend to Karina, whose strange European mother and taciturn father mutter about cattle trucks. Karina is not ordinary. She has no gift for friendship and the relationship is something of a trial to Carmel. By the time they attend big school Carmel has moved on and begun making friends with more interesting girls. It is one of these, Julia, that she rooms with in the hostel that is the main setting when they get to University. Karina goes too, but lives a curiously self-sufficient and separate life from that of her peers. The one shocking act at the end brings Carmel's past relationship with Karina into focus once again. She now knows two very important things about Karina - but neither of them can be told to anyone else.

This is both a tragedy and a comedy. Mantel is very prescient about girls and their friendships, and about girls and their boys. There is much to enjoy in these pages and I found myself disappointed that this novel wasn't longer. Like her novel Beyond Black, this one too creates some wonderful characters, and in common with that novel it ends at a point that might also be a beginning. Her gift for storytelling is so strong that her created lives go on after the book has finished.
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on 7 October 2017
Captures the period well but ultimately left me underwhelmed
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on 25 June 2003
This is my favourite among Hilary Mantel's books. It will strike a special chord with women brought up in the 60s and 70s in England. The themes of education versus hormones and indulgence versus repression are woven through the book in a very interesting way. It is not always an easy read, and I sometimes wish that we had more explicit information about the characters' motivations (particularly Karina's) - but I think it's that slightly mysterious quality that has made me re-read it several times.
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on 14 May 2003
Like the starving heroine, I was left wanting more by this enigmatic but excellent book. In an antidote to the usual "take three girls" formula, we follow the school and university careers of Carmel, Karina and Julianne, three pupils from a northern convent who all end up in the same grim University residence in London. Without ever becoming friends or understanding each other, the girls are thrown together into a penny-pinching student existence in their all-female enclave, playing out an ultimately tragic tale of envy, competition, appetite and self-denial.
The author obviously feels there is great injustice in the lives of these girls, and this gives her always excellent writing a particular energy. The flashbacks to the girls' schooldays, and the relationships between Carmel and Karina and their mothers, are particularly well done.
More than just a story, this book explores the broader themes of girls' education and ambitions, and how they can be thwarted both by society and by nature. Although the ending is downright strange and I really wanted to know more about some of the characters' motivations, I found this to be a truly original and compelling book.
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VINE VOICEon 22 June 2012
First published in the mid nineties, An Experiment in Love, is an acutely touching, beautifully written earlier work of the hugely acclaimed travel, fiction and especially well known as historical writer Hilary Mantel. Her descriptive powers are legend.

This is the story of Lancashire convent girl Carmel, dominated by a truly terrifying mother who famously `ran on wrath', an epithet which I think also applies to many post war women. As a school girl Carmel is condemned by proximity to befriend the chillingly self contained, sneering Karina, a stolid peasant like émigré from the Eastern Bloc whose chief purpose is to put others down and generally suck the life and soul out of all around.

Carmel observes her own life with an exquisitely wry humour. Her hen pecked beaten father with his jigsaw puzzles, model aeroplanes and cowed habits. Her own body and the trials she puts it through. Throughout, Carmel's phrases sing out and grip with recognisable reality. I loved her solemnly thinking: "My mother had heard this term `Oxbridge' and had begun to use it, and it was making me uneasy. I was afraid she thought it was a real place; when the time came, Oxford or Cambridge would not be good enough, only Oxbridge would be good enough for a daughter of hers." It can truly be wonderfully funny. I felt very much at home with the hierarchy, etiquette and snobbery, as I was a girl in the fifties/sixties too.

Karina glooms around Carmel throughout her schooling and even appears at the same `Tonbridge' University Hall, in London. Carmel chooses to study law; she is surprisingly determined and strong by then, even having a serious boyfriend at Glasgow University. Hurray, she luckily has enough self-confidence to quickly swap rooming arrangements to avoid sharing with Karina. She later sloughs off her family by default; her ghastly mother loses her grip at such a distance.

We are then in the territory of young women students grouped together experiencing fears, physical, emotional and financial. Emerging from the chrysalis of girlhood into what they would become. Doctor Julia, Christian Claire. Life in the Hall is written pin sharp, I actually think I caught a glimpse of Mrs. Thatcher in an earlier life, as a visiting guest.

The girls are kept busy helping, advising, and looking after each other; this is, apart from Karina. She only looks after herself. Lovely Lynette has to deal with her - and she does so with great style and sympathy. How she is rewarded for that provides the final flourish, one, which changes the whole premise of the book and shocks to the core. You really can't believe what you've just read.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 12 September 2011
A sometimes very funny, sometimes horribly poignant tale of a girl from working-class Lancashire trying to make her way as a law student at London University while haunted by her past, her memories of her parents' unhappy marriage and her experiences at convent school, and by a former schoolmate, Karina, who has followed her to London, moved into her hall of residence and constantly reminds her that she cannot break away totally from her past life. Mantel brings the claustrophobic life in a women's hall of residence vividly to life, and there are some memorable characters, ranging from the heroine Carmel's friend from convent school Julianne, a clever and sardonic girl from a wealthy background who can't really understand Carmel's poverty to the lovely, aristocratic Lynette, daughter of East European emigres (as is Karina, though Karina won't discuss this aspect of her past), the fanatically Christian Claire who turns out at heart to be a deeply good person despite her foolish side, and the dread Karina, sullen, silent, brooding vengefully. Mantel's descriptions of some aspects of university life (such as the student Labour club) and the awful institutional meals were hilarious. Coupled with this humour were some heartbreaking episodes: Carmel's growing anorexia, and the collapse of her relationship with her boyfriend, her accounts of her schooldays and the bullying she underwent at the hands of her mother, and her constant worries about money.

My only problem with the book was that the final scene almost felt tacked on from another novel. I couldn't really believe that Karina would be quite so evil or do such a dramatic action as Mantel had her do - I got the feeling that the final scene was really put in because Mantel wasn't quite sure how to end her book, and needed a 'cleansing' image. It seemed slightly out of kilter with the rest of the narrative, which was so thoughtful and intelligent - a sudden move into melodrama. We were also left with a lot of unanswered questions, about who Karina's boyfriend had been, what happened to Carmel in between her university days and when we see her as an adult, why she lost touch with Julianne (who renames herself Julia)and who Carmel eventually married. A slightly longer, slightly gentler end to the book might have been good. This being said, I still return to this book regularly with great enjoyment and have read it several times.
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on 19 February 2013
Hugely perceptive - writing brilliant - every word counts. Wonderfully convincing evocation of the period. One of her best novels, I think.
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on 24 June 2015
Having much enjoyed Mantel's recent 'Wolf Hall' and 'Bring up the Bodies', I was intrigued to pick up this earlier novel, tracing a young woman's journey through late adolescence into the realities of adulthood. Her depiction of London life as the 1960's turn to the 70's is highly evocative of the time, as those of us who were there can confirm, and the main characters she portrays weave a complex but intriguing web that meshes seamlessly into that world. The author has a penetrating intellect, and a wonderful ability to convey subtleties in her prose, and the story proceeds inexorably to its surprising conclusion. In typical Mantel style, even the title of the book has its own twist, as the reader will discover. This is a fine read, and I heartily commend it.
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on 30 September 2012
This is one of my favourite Hilary Mantel books so far. It is not necessarily a comfortable read though completely absorbing. She has, as always, incredible powers of description and the girls in this book, their awkwardness, what goes wrong and what goes right, are true to life and to a time, and one feels with them the awkwardness of being young adults but not adult enough sometimes. It unpicks the layers we build on our awkward beginnings and reminds the reader of that growing time. There is that pack mentality too that comes in group behaviour as well as the individual meanness of some, unexpected kindness of others. There is comeuppance and tragedy...and the book haunts you.
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