Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index




to e-mail us:

support the site

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK

In association with Amazon.ca - Canada



In association with Amazon.it - Italia

the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Chemistry of Tears

Peter Carey

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Chemistry of Tears

Title: The Chemistry of Tears
Author: Peter Carey
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012
Length: 229 pages
Availability: The Chemistry of Tears - US
The Chemistry of Tears - UK
The Chemistry of Tears - Canada
The Chemistry of Tears - India

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

B+ : fine writing, interesting contrasts

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 7/4/2012 A.S.Byatt
The Guardian . 6/4/2012 Andrew Motion
Independent on Sunday . 15/4/2012 Nina Caplan
New Statesman . 3/5/2012 Talitha Stevenson
The NY Times . 21/5/2012 Janet Maslin
The NY Times Book Rev. . 27/5/2012 Andrew Miller
The Observer . 30/3/2012 Edmund Gordon
San Francisco Chronicle . 18/5/2012 Troy Jollimore
The Spectator . 24/3/2012 Richard Davenport-Hines
The Telegraph . 12/4/2012 Catherine Taylor
TLS . 11/4/2012 Lidija Haas
The Washington Post C. 22/5/2012 Ron Charles

  Review Consensus:

  Quite impressed; some also befuddled

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is not an easy book to read. I was haunted throughout by the sense of a pattern of ideas that I couldn’t grasp. (...) The novel is baffling as well as exciting. It is a unique combination of raw human passion and complicated puzzling about human ingenuity." - A.S.Byatt, Financial Times

  • "Carey manages these time-shifts and other complications with the same easy-seeming mastery that he shows in all his novels. But here the fluency seems especially apt, because it is always devoted to the service of machines that themselves depend on being cunningly assembled and delightful (...) Carey is too subtle a writer to spell out precise meanings through this passage of bravura writing, but his intentions are clear enough." - Andrew Motion, The Guardian

  • "This novel lacks the wicked energy of Parrot and Olivier or Theft: A Love Story. But if Carey's best books are superlative, the next tier down is still better -- meatier, more imaginative -- than many writers ever manage. The Chemistry of Tears is awash with grief, some of it Carey's: for the breathless faith in our own perfectibility that has degenerated into environmental disaster." - Nina Caplan, Independent on Sunday

  • "Novels live or die by the fine balance they strike between the writer’s observation of human madness and the degree to which he has imposed on this the organising principles of an authorial method. Madness portrayed with exquisite method has been Carey’s speciality, but his new novel is method first, with madness spread all over it, as if the human story were an afterthought, less interesting than the essay at the novel’s core. Like Vaucanson’s duck, The Chemistry of Tears is a mechanical marvel but it’s not all that much like life." - Talitha Stevenson, New Statesman

  • "Mr. Carey’s wild hybrid novels are always intriguing, sometimes transporting, never ordinary. But concocting 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. (...) Either way, it’s an uneasy synthesis and an eccentric, meandering read." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

  • "It is here, perhaps, in the watchmaker’s hallucinogenic parable, that we come to what Carey is playing with in this novel: the illusory versus the actual, the mechanical versus the organic. The gap, if any, between that which, in its complexity, imitates life, and that which is living and may possess something else, something that isn’t simply part of the works. A soul ! Carey, of course, isn’t going to come down on one side or the other of this venerable debate." - Andrew Miller, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Carey's exceptional storytelling talents are all on prominent display here. Catherine's and Henry's voices are lustily generated and expertly distinguished from one another; contemporary London and 19th-century Germany are conveyed in lightly distributed yet powerfully evocative physical detail; both narratives are invigorated throughout by a thrilling verbal energy, and an almost unfailing knack for alighting on the mot juste (...) 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, The Observer

  • "This ambitious, playful and engagingly strange novel does not, perhaps, burn quite so brightly or shimmer quite so beguilingly as Carey's best books. But it is still quite lovely, and rather like an automaton, it does seem to add up to more than the sum of its parts." - Troy Jollimore, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The final chapter shows Carey on top form as a dazzling flying trickster (there is a beautifully turned hoax about Carl’s responsibility for global warming). Overall, though, this is a subdued, even careworn book with a wary attitude to dehumanising technology. There are neat descriptions of lush German landscape, but none of the elating richness of Carey’s spectacular Australia-based novels. Readers who revelled in his mid-life exuberance will find him at the age of 69 sombre and apprehensive." - Richard Davenport-Hines, The Spectator

  • "(A)nother stylish tour de force." - Catherine Taylor, The Telegraph

  • "As its title suggests, The Chemistry of Tears is formed around the idea of the human body and its feelings as an intricate but potentially explicable system. Both Henry and Catherine imagine themselves and other people in those terms, as mechanisms that work in similar ways to the automata they want to construct." - Lidija Haas, Times Literary Supplement

  • "For more than 30 years, he’s published dazzlingly smart stories about con artists and fanatics with deceptions nested inside confusion tied up with madness. But his latest novel pulls those strings of madness a little too tight to unpack. (...) No other popular literary author is so wily -- so willful about letting us remain in the fog. That confusion can be intoxicating, but several things make all this more frustrating than engaging." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

- Return to top of the page -

The complete review's Review:

       The Chemistry of Tears has two main narrative tracks. The chapters narrated by Catherine Gehrig are set in the near-present (2010). She is an horologist -- specializing in watches -- at the Swinburne Museum in London, "one of London's almost-secret treasure houses", and for thirteen years has been carrying on an affair with an older, married colleague, Matthew Tindall; the story begins with her learning of his death -- but because of the nature of their relationship she can not grieve openly (or at least too openly ...). Her boss, who knew about the affair, tries to help her, and among his efforts is a new project for her, as he hands over to her the pieces of what turns out to be a mechanical swan, constructed in the mid-nineteenth century, and the notebooks of Henry Brandling, who commissioned it.
       Catherine works her way through Henry's notebooks, and parts of them make up separate chapters of the novel, allowing Henry and Catherine's stories to unfold side by side. Henry, too, faces personal loss, as he already lost one child to consumption and he is afraid his beloved son, Percy, will succumb as well; to please the boy, he has promised to have a copy of Vaucanson's famous mechanical duck built -- but when he travels to Germany finds himself very reluctantly embarking on a much grander project.
       This is a novel that contrasts the complex mechanical precision and predictable -- and often literally lifelike -- workings of clockworks and engines to the workings of human beings. Both Catherine and Henry are in a man-versus-machine struggle, made all the more difficult because they're not quite sure where they should stand: "Neither I nor Matthew had time for souls", Catherine admits early on, and without souls the barrier and difference between automaton and human can seem diminishingly small .....
       Yet despite, for example, having chosen as her career this specialization in clockwork perfection, Catherine also has her doubts about machines and the uses they can be put to, in sustaining and substituting for life itself: recalling the terrible last days of her father in hospital before he died, she complains:

They tortured him, Eric. They played with him. We had to make them turn off their idiot machines.
       Carey's two main characters do not act entirely rationally -- both having the excuse of the emotional stress they're under, justifying (or explaining) how they act. (Catherine also self-medicates to considerable excess, which also leads to more impulsive behavior.) There's a surprising amount of physical lashing out in the novel by the characters, a striking contrast to the very predictable and planned movements of, for example, the mechanical swan.
       Both characters are also not quite in control of their situations, struggling against what is imposed on them: Catherine is in a very controlled environment -- there are all sorts of rules and procedures at the museum, and she is constantly dealing with going through security. There are also several others, notably her boss, who are gently trying to guide her along, carefully laying tracks for her to follow (while when she's on her own her movements tend to be erratic and spontaneous). While Catherine could not be included in her lover's will, others also see to it that his final wishes regarding her are met -- a kind act, but again one which she has no control over. Meanwhile, Henry finds himself frustratingly at the mercy of others, his clear plan of what he wanted to have done, and how, upset by people who simply commandeer the project and decide what's best without really consulting him.
       An assistant assigned to Catherine also complicates matters, as Catherine is in no condition to supervise and instruct properly: among the novel's most fascinating passages are her descriptions of how she knows she's handling the situation badly, yet can't help herself. The fact that the assistant, too, turns out to be unbalanced doesn't help matters either.
       The mechanical offers a predictable -- and lasting -- perfection that the human body can't match. As they promise Henry about the swan:
It is made to be a child's enthusiasm. It will be beautiful and friendly. No one will be hurt. Nothing shall die. Even the fish it eats will rise up from the dead and swim again.
       Messy life, as Catherine and Henry (and everyone else) live it, of course, doesn't allow for such simple perfection.
       Carey cleverly works with these contrasts in his often beautifully written and artfully constructed novel. It's an interesting piece of work, rarely too obvious or forcing the issue(s); like Catherine says about Henry's notebooks:
His was, in the best and worst sense, an intriguing narrative.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 May 2012

- Return to top of the page -


The Chemistry of Tears: Reviews: Peter Carey: Other books by Peter Carey under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Gaby Wood on Living Dolls (also: Edison's Eve) -- including Vaucanson's duck
  • See Index of Australian literature at the complete review

- Return to top of the page -

About the Author:

       Australian author Peter Carey was born in 1943. He has won the Booker Prize, the Miles Franklin Award, and the Commonwealth Prize.

- Return to top of the page -

© 2012 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links