An Experiment in Love
Written by Hillary Mantel
Review by Jarad Johnson
The plot of this novel is multilayered, multidimensional, and fluid. This makes it hard to know where to start sometimes, so I’ll try to begin by give a general overview of the book. The main character is named Carmel, and the novel follows her as she moves from her parent’s house to a boarding school. The reader follows her as she struggles with anorexia and her studies. The plot moves from event to event, memory to memory, and in that sense is very realistic, because when you recount an even it doesn’t come to you in a linear fashion. The novel is in a sense like looking into the mind of someone else- literally. It deals with many issues, including eating disorders, depression, body dysmorphia and abortion. Really, I can’t say that this novel is about any particular thing; it’s just Carmel’s life. There is no message, no point, it just tells her story, and leaves interpretations up to the reader. Not to say that there isn’t meaning, but there’s no agenda.
I have to be honest: this book was not one of my favorites, mainly because of the shifting plot narrative. I found it to be almost too fluid, and never was grounded in the book itself, and thus was never thoroughly invested in it. I also never was particularly engaged by what plot I could find, and while I appreciate the seriousness of the issues it covers, I didn’t enjoy the book itself. It didn’t grab me. I found the reading experience to be jarring and displacing, which I’m sure was the point, but it didn’t make the reading experience especially pleasant.
However, the one thing I can say about this book that I enjoyed is the mother/daughter relationship it portrays. Carmel sees her mother as unfeminine, and describes her “masculine” looking hands, which she says were meant to hold a rifle, not a sewing needle. From that passage, it becomes readily apparent that Carmel can only describe the exterior appearance of her mother. She knows nothing about the inner workings of the woman’s mind and has no real relationship with her. This is not her fault; the mother herself is only focused on Carmel’s outward appearance, and in fact it seems to be all she cares about. She forgot that being a mother means more than making sure your child is behaves in a, “ladylike,” manner and wears fashionable clothes, mostly because the mother never got those things. I think it speaks to the fact that many parents live vicariously through their children. It’s something that has always annoyed me, because the child has their own opinions, thoughts and dreams. They are not there to fulfill the dreams of their parents, and in the case of Carmel, her mother never attempted to go beyond the exterior. I think Kahlil Gibran described it perfectly when he wrote, “You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth,” and, “Though they are with you yet they belong not to you.” Of course, it also speaks to the larger problem of sexism in our society. It demonstrates how internalized sexism is perpetuated, because it’s not the fathers who usually indoctrinate children into the patriarchy, it is in fact the mothers.
Abortion plays a large part in this novel, and I would be remiss not to mention it. Once cannot help but be reminded of the current debates and attitudes regarding abortion when talking about this; in fact, when my class read this section of the novel, we spent half an hour discussing the Kavanagh hearings, because it was relevant. Narratives about abortion are uncommon, even in fiction. I think it really speaks to how conflicted and divided people are on abortion, and what a controversial topic is was in the time the book is set. As a society, we are beginning to recognize a woman’s right to choose. Any other avenue is one of oppression and inequality, or rather, of worsening inequality. (My own opinion is as George Carlin would have said, “Keep thy religion to thy self.”) Like the plot points about eating disorders discussed in this book, this is an important aspect of society to consider.
There were certainly important and poignant moments in the book, and serious themes. I just wish the book had been more engaging on a narrative level.
Jarad is the co-administrator for Sacred Chickens, attends college at MTSU, loves tea, and tries to spend every spare second reading. Jarad wants to be an English major. Bless his heart! Let's all light a candle for him and send him happy thoughts!