The Answers by Catherine Lacey: Love, whatever that Is

Cover imageCatherine Lacey’s second novel arrived with a press release mentioning Margaret Atwood. I tend to ignore these bits of paper until I’ve finished the book, preferring to read it with an open mind. A few chapters in, however, Atwood’s was the name that popped into my head. Not such a cheeky comparison after all for this satire which takes a dystopian view of relationships, our obsession with celebrity and the seemingly inexorable march of technology into even our most private moments. It’s about a social experiment, a scientific study commissioned by movie star to investigate what makes us fall in love and stay that way.

Mary is in desperate straits. Afflicted with many and varied symptoms, medical bills piling up, her only relief derived from Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia – the therapy recommended by her best, and only, friend – she has to find a way to make some money. A notice in a health food store seems to offer a solution, albeit one cloaked in mystery. She jumps through the many hoops of the recruitment process – her main qualification seemingly her ignorance of Kurt Sky, the household name behind this strange assignment – until she’s initiated into the Girlfriend Experiment. She’s to be Emotional Girlfriend alongside Angry Girlfriend, Maternal Girlfriend and Mundane Girlfriend, to name but a few of the participants. Each of them must take part in choreographed and scripted Relational Experiments with Kurt, closely monitored by the Research Division who have their own agenda. As the experiment proceeds, it seems that Mary’s interactions with Kurt are the most successful. The job becomes full-time and as the Research Division interpolate their own ideas into the experiments, Mary’s feelings become increasingly confused. Meanwhile, she continues her PAK therapy with Ed, complete with crystals, gnomic pronouncements and incense burning.

Lacey’s novel is stuffed full of barbs aimed at modern society, from our determination to find perfect romantic love to our obsession with celebrity, reserving a few for the wackier alternative therapies. Mary tells her own story in the beginning and end sections of the book while the experiment forms the middle. There were a few too many girlfriends popping up at one point – I began to feel we might be losing track of Mary – but that said Lacey’s writing is both acerbic and penetrating. The idea of a man, numbed by constant and insistent attention, trying to track down how love feels, is both poignant and repellent yet convincing. Lacey has some trenchant comments to make about our pursuit and expectations of love: ‘It was painfully clear then, so painfully clear, that people fell in love to find something in themselves that they’d had all along’ thinks Mary, watching two lovers. Altogether a sharply observed satire, smartly delivered with a hefty dollop of caustic humour, which – echoing that press release – brought Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last to mind.

12 thoughts on “The Answers by Catherine Lacey: Love, whatever that Is

  1. Rebecca Foster

    Definitely sounds like The Heart Goes Last. Also, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine (Alexandra Kleeman). I think I’d enjoy it. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  2. bookbii

    Lacey is a writer I find very intriguing, though I haven’t got around to reading her yet. I think I must. I’m not a huge fan of Atwood, I think she can be a bit patchy though she’s exceptional when at her best, so the Atwood similarity isn’t particularly compelling but the book itself sounds very interesting and possibly quite a fun read. Definitely going to have to bump Lacey up the (very long) queue.

    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      I lost my enthusiasm for Atwood after Oryx and Crake but The Heart Goes Last put me back in touch with that, surprising me with its humour. Lacey’s novel is very funny, too. Worth bumping up that queue.

  3. Elena

    I saw this book during my recent trip to the UK, maybe at Waterstones? I can’t remember where, but I do remember stopping to have a look at it, and then forgetting about it. So thank you for reminding me. It sounds like the perfect combination of good literature, pop culture, and contemporary critique.


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