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.
"After the sudden death of her married lover, London museum conservator Catherine Gehrig channels her grief into the task of restoring a 19th-century automaton, in Carey's powerful novel on the frailty of the human body and the emotional life we imbue in machines. 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 project in the Swinburne Annex, away from the gossip. Numb with heartache, she's uncharacteristically uninterested in opening eight sealed tea chests until the day of her lover's funeral, when she discovers inside the chests 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. He travels to Germany in search of a master clockmaker, and 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. Agent: Amada Urban, ICM." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
From the two-time winner of the Man Booker Prize: An automaton, a man and a woman who can never meet, a secret love story, and the fate of the warming world are all brought to incandescent life in this hauntingly moving novel from one of the most admired writers of our time.
London 2011. Catherine Gehrig, a museum conservator, learns of the death of her colleague and lover of thirteen years. As the mistress of a married man, she must keep her grief a secret. She is rescued by the only person who knew of this affair — her boss. It is he who arranges a project that demands she work in isolation. In deep mourning, she will bring back to "life" a nineteenth-century automaton. Usually controlled and rational, but now mad with sorrow, Catherine discovers a series of notebooks written by Henry Brandling, who, in 1854, commissioned the extraordinary, eerie mechanical creature. Henry's is a personal account of his adventures in the wilds of Germany, a diary that brings Catherine unexpected comfort and wonder. But it is the automaton itself, in its beautiful, uncanny imitation of life, that will link Henry and Catherine, as they are confronted with the mysteries of life and death, the miracle and catastrophe 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
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of The Chemistry of Tears, a novel that explores love and obsession in two drastically different eras from two-time Booker Prize–winning author Peter Carey.
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?