Having not read anything else by Peter Carey, I read The Chemistry of Tears with fresh eyes. I was excited to pick up a novel by a Man Booker prize winner that I hadn’t yet gotten around to reading.
The novel begins with Catherine Gehrig finding out her lover of thirteen years, a married man, has just died suddenly. She is obviously devastated, but has no one to share her grief with because of the secret they shared. No one until her boss, Eric Croft or ‘Crofty’, admits that he knew about the affair all along. He understands her grief and reassigns her to a different project in a different building as things blow over and she has time to grieve.
Catherine is a horologist, someone who makes or repairs clocks or watches. Catherine is skilled in restoration. Crofty has assigned her to seven tea chests packed with the remains of a 19th century automaton. The tea chests also have a number of journals that belong to a Henry Brandling, the man who commissioned the automaton to be created. The story alternates between that of Catherine and that of Henry. We learn through Henry’s journals that he is a desperate and somewhat rich man. He has the means and the desire to commission a very large automaton for his son. He travels from England to Germany in 1854 in search of a capable clockmaker. He spends time with the clockmaker in a small town in Germany, leaving his very ill son back in England with what seems to be a not-so-nice mother. Henry’s grand plan is to build the automaton and it will in some way save his son. At times, he is so utterly desperate, he resorts to violence and anger.
The book’s characters are for the most part, hard to relate to. In the beginning, I tried to feel for Catherine’s loss and the grief she endured following her lover’s death, but it became increasingly difficult. Brandling’s issue seemed to be of the utmost importance in his own mind, but again, it was very hard to relate with. There were a few moments in which a connection was possible, but they were very few in number and were only small blurbs, not enough to sustain the novel.
I really wanted to like The Chemistry of Tears; there were a lot of information about automatons and horology. The themes of grief and sadness were intertwined throughout. I didn’t feel as though there were large amounts of technical descriptions, so the story did not bog down for that. The topic was an interesting one and I am sure that some may enjoy the characters and the plot. It’s unfortunate that I didn’t feel that way.
Part-time fiction writer, Alisha Churbe lives in Portland, Oregon. In the rare instances when you can pry her away from books, Alisha can be found travelling in foreign countries, cooking, or hiking with her husband Michael and dog Euro.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Knopf. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.