The Chemistry of Tears

By Peter Carey

(Knopf, $26, 240)

Who is this author?

Born in Australia and trained in advertising copywriting, Peter Carey has gone on to become one of today’s most admired writers, Now the executive director of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York, he has published 12 novels and four works of nonfiction. Much praised for his craftsmanship with words and his imaginative plots, he has won the Booker Prize in England twice and the  Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and has won the Miles Franklin Literary Award five times.

What is this book about?

It’s about love, grief, time, memory and the reconstruction of a 19th-century automaton, an early precursor of today’s mechanical toys. If this sounds a bit reminiscent of the charming film, “Hugo,” it’s an apt comparison – to a point. For this is no children’s story. Rather, it follows Catherine, a female horologist at a British museum, one of only a few women in this exacting discipline that studies the science of time and the instruments that have been invented to measure it. When her secret (and married) lover dies, this distraught woman (who cannot express her grief publically) throws herself into a new project, researching the diaries of a 19th-century Englishman, Henry Brandling, who commissions a possibly mad, surely brilliant German inventor to build an automaton for his sickly son.  Catherine begins to re-construct the device—a clockwork duck, of all things –  a monumental task made harder by her difficult assistant and by what the diaries reveal.

Why you’ll like it:

Carey is known for his whimsical humor, plots that make bizarre situations plausible, lyrical style and strange but believable characters. All of these talents are on display in “The Chemistry of Tears.” This book links a present-day character, Catherine, with 19th-century Henry, both of whom are dealing with grief and working with unreliable people. Told in parts by each character, it is a fanciful yet profound exploration of love, grief and mortality.

What others are saying:

“Carey …is a bewitching storyteller preternaturally attuned to our endless struggles over love and eccentric obsessions. In this fairy tale within a fairy tale rife with historical and literary allusions, Catherine, a horologist (an expert in the science and instruments of measuring time) on the staff of a London museum, is mad with grief after the sudden death of her married lover and struggles to focus on the new restoration project her sympathetic boss hopes will comfort her….Set during the Gulf oil crisis and reminiscent of The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007) in its linkage of a rescued automaton and loneliness, Carey’s gripping, if at times overwrought, fable raises provocative questions about life, death, and memory and our power to create and destroy…” says Booklist.

“Carey is a writer I prize not only for his remarkable Dickensian plots but also for the brilliance of his style…. He is the most exuberant stylist at work in English today, “ says Edmund White in the Daily Telegraph.

“Few writers manage so consistently and delightfully as Peter Carey to conjure wondrous scenes populated with idiosyncratic yet credible characters. The Chemistry of Tears does not disappoint . . . 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,” says The Economist.

“A powerful novel on the frailty of the human body and the emotional life we imbue in machines . . . 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,” says Publishers Weekly in a starred, pick of the week review.

When is it available?

“The Chemistry of Tears” can be found among the new books at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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