Peter Carey

748770.pngPeter Carey is a two-time Booker Prize winner‚ for Oscar and Lucinda (1988) and The True History of the Kelly Gang (2000). His previous novel, Parrot and Olivier in America (4 of 5 Stars Selection July/Aug 2010), was inspired by the life of French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville. The Chemistry of Tears is his 13th novel.

The Story: Catherine Gehrig is a horologist, an expert in the science and instruments of measuring time, at London's Swinburne Museum. When her married colleague and longtime lover suddenly dies, Catherine is devastated. Her boss sends her to the museum's back rooms to grieve privately and to reassemble a strange mechanical bird built in 1854. The bird was commissioned by Henry Brandling, a Victorian gentleman who wanted to craft a unique toy for his dying son. When Catherine stumbles upon Henry's personal notebooks, she becomes obsessed with the bird's origins‚ and with recreating the automaton, piece by piece.
Knopf. 240 pages. $26. ISBN: 9780307592712

Telegraph (UK) 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Despite the Victorian backdrop, this is not rampant, costumed Victoriana, but masterly historical fiction that both talks about now, and makes the past seem immediate. I loved this book for its mysteries, its hinted back stories, its reserve, and its underlying complexity." Lucy Daniel

Guardian (UK) 3 of 5 Stars
"For all its brilliance, The Chemistry of Tears is a novel that speaks to the intellect rather than the heart‚ it is a complex and expertly crafted piece of machinery, but not an altogether convincing representation of life." Edmund Gordon

Spectator (UK) 3 of 5 Stars
"There are neat descriptions of lush German landscape, but none of the elating richness of Carey's spectacular Australia-based novels. Readers who reveled in his mid-life exuberance will find him at the age of 69 sombre and apprehensive." Richard Davenport-Hines

Globe and Mail (Canada) 2.5 of 5 Stars
"When will novelists tire of this creaky device‚ the lost diary, the cache of hidden letters, the forgotten journals from decades or centuries back that the contemporary protagonist becomes obsessed with and that shed light on her own story and help her decode a mystery? This is virtuoso writing, but the idea, thematically important to the novel, remains undigested throughout, not unlike the grain eaten by M. Vaucanson's famous bird." Zsuzsi Gartner

New York Times 2 of 5 Stars
"[C]oncocting a narrative out of found objects can be forced and awkward. In the case of The Chemistry of Tears, the mixture winds up more mystifying than magical, and all too easy to resist." Janet Maslin

Critical Summary

Centuries ago, Jacques de Vaucanson invented the Digesting Duck, a mechanical bird supposedly capable of eating, processing, and defecating grain. Carey uses this trivia as inspiration for his newest work, with mixed results. Although the story takes on complex themes of fraudulence, subterfuge, technical innovation, love, and grief as it pans back and forth in time, it has too many disparate parts and themes that fail to cohere. One critic didn't like either protagonist, describing Catherine as a neurotic alcoholic and Henry as a rude, entitled ingrate‚ two main characters who are impossible to empathize with. And although the Telegraph found the story subtle and complex and all reviewers praised Carey's exquisite writing, the book's premise proves to be far more interesting than its execution.