“The Chemistry of Tears” by Peter Carey

“The Chemistry of Tears” by Peter Carey   (2012) – 227 pages


“The Chemistry of Tears” is a novel that alternates between two entirely separate time periods and two main characters.  One storyline is that of Henry Brandling in the middle of the nineteenth century who wants to get a special clock toy built for his terribly ill two-year old son.  This special clock toy is a mechanical duck that can quack, eat grain, and even defecate.  He winds up in Germany among the best cuckoo clock makers of the nineteenth century.

 The other storyline involves modern day academic Catherine Gehrig who, in her early forties and mourning the death of her lover, is given the assignment of doing original research on Brandling.

 I suppose the structure of “The Chemistry of Tears” is quite similar to that of the novel “Possession” by A. S. Byatt which also alternates between a story about people in the past and the story of modern day academics studying them.  However, for me, “Possession” was a complete success, while “The Chemistry of Tears” did not work for me at all.  The two stories in “Possession” enhance each other and combine to make a deeply moving novel.  I never could see how the two stories in “The Chemistry of Tears” fit together on any emotional level. 

 The parts of “The Chemistry of Tears” that take place in nineteenth century Austria are as intricate,  complicated, and contrived as the mechanical clocks and toys that these craftsmen are building.  Very early on in the novel I realized that the payoff from this nineteenth century storyline of the novel was not going to justify the huge effort required to completely figure it out.  I grew impatient with this storyline and annoyed with my inability to figure out what was supposed to be going on.  Somehow I slogged through, but this convoluted storyline left me irritated.

 The parts of “The Chemistry of Tears” about Catherine and her modern day research are marginally better, just because Catherine is a more vivid dramatic character than Henry Brandling.  However, this modern story is dragged down by the research she is doing on this old Austrian story.   Also, even though some parts of the ‘Catherine’ story are well-written and interesting, I still haven’t figured out what the point of the whole thing is. 

 The bottom line is that I disliked “The Chemistry of Tears” more than any novel I’ve read since “The Marriage Plot”.   Whereas in “The Marriage Plot” I actively detested the three main characters, in “The Chemistry of Tears” I lacked sufficient interest in the two main characters and simply didn’t care what happened to them.  I was detached and disinterested in the stories, didn’t understand how the two stories fit together, and was irritated to spend so much time and effort trying to follow what was going on.  

 On the back cover of “The Chemistry of Tears”, the novel is described as ‘Dickensian’.  Charles Dickens is by no means my favorite novelist, but the only thing that is Dickensian in “The Chemistry of Tears” is that much of it takes place in the nineteenth century.  When I consider how moved I always am by “The Christmas Carol”, it seems almost a sacrilege to call “The Chemistry of Tears” Dickensian.

9 responses to this post.

  1. Oooh, interesting take on this one! I’ve only read brilliant reviews of it — and the three panelists on the (occasionally snobby) BBC Review Show a few weeks back said it should win this year’s Booker! I am yet to read it myself, although I have a copy lying in wait.


    • Hi Kimbofo,
      It looks like there may be a gap across the Atlantic on this novel. I’ve only read a few reviews, all from the United States, and they all thought this was a lesser novel from Carey who has written great novels in the past. Maybe this is a novel that the English adore, but the Americans don’t get.


  2. Oh, I can see more that’s Dickensian than simply the 19th century Tony … the exaggerated characters of the Brandling story in particular are Dickensian. I agree that following the plot of what was going on in this part was hard to follow but in a way that too was part of the “Dickensianness”. In my review I commented that there were times where he pushed the plot hard, perhaps too hard, but I liked it overall. Unlike Lisa, though, I probably enjoyed Parrot and Olivier better. But I didn’t find it boring at all … Carey always keeps me on my toes.


    • Hi WhisperingGums Sue,
      Opinions about “The Chemistry of Tears” seem to be all over the place from high praise to active dislike. I read both your and Lisa’s reviews and see that both of you like the novel a lot more than I did with Lisa liking it even more than you.
      I suppose another Dickensian aspect for me was the way the emotion Brandling displays for his sick son and that Catherine displays for her dead lover is depicted so fulsomely, a lot like Dickens’ depiction of Oliver Twist.


      • Yes, good one Tony, that heightened emotionalism is another Dickensian aspect. As you clearly gathered from my review I did have moments of reservation but there’s something about Carey’s “grand” conceptions that get me in despite myself sometimes!


  3. I have such trouble with books that have those dual past-present stories (I think that’s one of the reasons I still haven’t read Possession, despite the fact that just about everyone loves it). If, as you’re saying, the characters are also not deserving of attention and you felt only a passive interest in them, it seems like this is a novel to skip over… The historical premise seems interesting enough, but it doesn’t sound as though Carey pulled it off well…


    • Hi Biblibio,
      I’m trying to think of other novels that alternate between two distinct time periods, so far unsuccessfully. There are a lot of novels where the novel starts out in the present and then goes back to an earlier time in the main character’s life. “Rules of Civility” by Amor Towles used that device quite successfully.


  4. Posted by sharkell on June 24, 2012 at 10:49 AM

    I am so glad to read a less than positive review of this book. I haven’t read much of Carey but this one was so built up by bloggers that I picked it up from the local library when I saw it on the shelves. I had pretty much the same reaction as you. I really disliked the 19th Century story and ended up skipping the last half. I couldn’t follow it without concentrating too much and I didn’t care enough to concentrate. I did read the story of Catherine through to the end, it was interesting enough to carry me through but I wished at the end that I’d simply put the book down and moved onto something more interesting.


    • Hi Sharkell,
      Yeah, that was my reaction. “I wished at the end that I’d simply put the book down and moved onto something more interesting.” When I read a book like this, I keep thinking about the books waiting to be read that look so much more interesting. But I suppose one must read books like this one once in a while to appreciate the good ones.


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