Synopses & Reviews
An automaton, a man and a woman who can never meet, two stories of love — all are brought to incandescent life in this hauntingly moving novel from one of the finest writers of our time.
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 secret — her boss — arranges 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.
"Dazzling...encompasses heartbreak, the comfort of absorbing work, the transformative power of beauty and the soul of an old machine...part historical, part fanciful, and completely wonderful." Heller McAlpin, NPR
"Ambitious, playful and engagingly strange." San Francisco Chronicle
"Touching and thought-provoking." The New York Times Book Review
"Deeply moving...tells the story of the essential human desire to return to the individual Edens that we inhabited...beautifully told." Nature
"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." The Independent (London)
"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." The Economist
"Carey is one of the most original novelists writing today." The New Republic
"Vividly rendered....Carey has given each story the chaotic quality of hallucination....He shapes the two madnesses with imaginative intensity." The Boston Globe
"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
"A short novel that bristles with ideas....Carey is a master novelist." The Oregonian
"[A] profoundly detailed study of love and grief....Carey has built us a captivating replica of the most timeless piece of machinery of all — a broken heart." The Seattle Times
"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." The Toronto Star
"For his new, briskly paced novel, The Chemistry of Tears, he has pulled off a nifty trick, offering interconnected plots set in two distinct eras....Carey's deft, spare prose is full of striking images....Carey explores a series of interconnected themes that are admirably complex for such a short book." Richmond Times-Dispatch
"A writer of such sustained flair that he has, only two years after his Man Booker
A Seattle Times Best Book of 2012
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.
About the Author
Peter Carey is the author of eleven previous novels and has twice received the Booker Prize. His other honors include the Commonwealth Writers' Prize and the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Born in Australia, he has lived in New York City for twenty years.
Reading Group Guide
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?