The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey

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The Chemistry of Tears

Five words from the blurb: automaton, love, grief, mechanics, life

In the past I’ve had a hit/miss relationship with Carey’s books, but now he has produced a book that I neither love, nor hate. I think my lack of passion in either direction can be seen as a bad sign.

The Chemistry of Tears begins with Catherine, an automation conservator, discovering that the man she’s been having a secret affair with has died. Unable to share her grief she retreats into isolation. Luckily her boss is aware of the situation and gives her the task of restoring a rare automation. Notes produced at the time of its creation also give her the opportunity to discover the difficulties faced by its commissioner and these are woven into the story as a second narrative thread set in 19th century Germany.

I enjoyed the investigation into the difficulties of private grief, but the book failed to maintain this beautifully claustrophobic atmosphere. I was unable to bond with Catherine and although I initially enjoyed the descriptions of the automaton I quickly became bored by the increased technical detail.

The historical section about the commissioning of the automaton was also interesting at first, but mirrored the other narrative arc in becoming increasingly dull.

I suspect that the effects were all deliberate, as suggested by this quote from the book:

Time and time again, in the early hours, I took refuge with Henry Brandling whose slightly mechanical handwriting served to cloak the strangeness of the events it described. He was, in the best and worst sense, an intriguing narrative.

Unfortunately the mechanical writing did cloak any strangeness that may have been present and I’m afraid that it also prevented the writing from being intriguing. The coldness of the narrative is probably meant to symbolise the lifelessness of machines, but as a reader it frustrated me. I wanted more emotion and some narrative drive.

Some interesting ideas were sprinkled through the text, but overall I was a bit disappointed. It was a mildly entertaining read, but if you’d like to read a story about automata I’d recommend The Invention of Hugo Cabret every time.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

It’s an enjoyable enough read but my enthusiasm for turning the pages towards the end came more from the prospect of finishing it rather than wanting to know how it finished. Just William’s Luck

This book is good. Really good. Shearer’s Book Blog

I had no connection to any of the characters, not liking them, nor caring what happened to them in the end. Back to Books



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  1. David says:

    I completely agree with your assessment, Jackie. I thought Carey introduced some interesting ideas. ‘Are we merely complex machines?’ doesn’t strike me as being all that ground-breaking a notion, but Carey explores it in an original way and the novel certainly got me thinking. But I was never sure if Carey was asking that as a question or just trying to prove it. If it was the former I felt he needed to give me a greater sense of the characters’ humanity since I certainly didn’t feel the engagement with Catherine that I think perhaps I was supposed to feel, and Henry Brandling I’m afraid just bored me.
    It’s very complex, it’s very clever (and I’m sure there’s a lot I missed that a second reading would reveal), and it is of course very well written, but I just found the whole thing quite cold. I don’t know, I think perhaps Carey succeeds at doing what he set out to do, and on those terms the book is probably (as many reviews suggest) a triumph, but it wasn’t a novel I especially enjoyed.

    1. Jackie says:

      David, It was an interesting concept, but I don’t think he introduced anything particularly new or original. I didn’t find it thought-provoking, but that may be because I was too bored to be fully engaged with it.

      I agree that it was well-written and I’m sure that more will be revealed on a re-read, but I’m not interested in re-reading it at all! It will be interesting to see if the Booker judges are more excited by it than we were.

  2. Steph says:

    Peter Carey is one of those authors who I always feel I should read, but then whenever I think I might, I rad a sufficiently lackluster review of one of his books that all desire to try him leaves me. I have this deep suspicion that no matter what book I try from him I will find disappointing, so even though I tend to think his premises are intriguing, it seems like he fails to nail the execution time and again. One of these days I’m sure I’ll bite the bullet and give him a go, but for now, I am content to let others test the waters for me! ;)

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, I think you’ll enjoy some of his books – Oscar and Lucinda might be a good place to start. The problem is that he produces very different books and so no single reader will enjoy all of them. It is a sign of his skill as a writer, but I can see why that is daunting to someone who hasn’t tried his books before. I’ve read several and I still have no idea whether or not I’ll enjoy the next one I pick up

  3. JoV says:

    Same as Steph said about letting other people test the water for me. Thank you for reading it so that I don’t have to. Always been curious about Peter Carey’s books, maybe I’ll read his earlier ones.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jo, I think you’ll enjoy some of his books. Give him a try one day.

  4. Really interesting to hear your thoughts on this title Jackie and Carey’s writing.

    The first title I read from Carey was “Bliss” and I did not like it at all. On that basis I avoided his other titles for many years. After much persuasion from a wonderful book blogger with reading tastes that align with mine I then relented and read “Oscar and Lucinda” and absolutely loved it. So hit and miss sums it up. I have been torn on “The Chemistry of Tears” – the synopsis reads like something I would love but I fear the execution may leave me ambivalent too.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jo, I loved Ocasr and Lucinda too. Hopefully you’ll find more of his work to enjoy, but I’m not convinced that The Chemistry of Tears is the one for you.

  5. nomadreader says:

    I was initially really excited about this novel, as the premise is so intriguing, but the reviews have been rather mediocre, and I haven’t carved out time to read it yet.

    1. Jackie says:

      nomadreader, I loved the sound of it too. Such a shame it was as cold as the machines it focuses on.

  6. Jenners says:

    I think I’d rather just have the story about the secret grief and skip the rest. That is an interesting idea to write about.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenners, Just read the first few chapters – they are fantastic!

  7. Becky says:

    Disappointed to hear that it wasn’t as good as I had hoped it would be. Well, I will definitely be crossing this one off of my list of books to read. On to my next book, “The In-Ko-Pah Spirit” by Wally Runnels- thriller about a mercenary who is paid to track down a rebellious member of a Mexicali drug cartelin the the In-Ko-Pah Mountains- an isolated region on the Mexican/American Border.

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