The narrator, Carmel, comes from a working class, Irish Catholic family. Her mother pushes her to gain a scholarship to the local convent school and then to sit for examinations to London University. Along the way Carmel is forced to befriend Karina, the daughter of immigrant parents. Carmel’s mother knows something about Karina’s family that justifies forcing Carmel to befriend her, though her mother never tells Carmel what it is.
Karina is not a sympathetic character in spite of the un-named tragedy she has survived. She reminded my of Tsugumi in Banana Yoshimoto’s novel Goodbye Tsugumi. Carmel is saddled with Karina throughout childhood and on into the dormitory at London University though she longs to dump her in favor of Julienne, the daughter of wealthy parents who befriends her at the convent school. But even Julienne’ friendship becomes problematic by the novel’s end. Why do these girls spend so much time together when they basically do not like each other?
Midway through the novel, I remembered my own experience at college, living in the dorms, forced to befriend the people I lived with though we had little in common. We thought more profound things drew us together, but proximity was the strongest factor at play. I became friends with people who lived on the same floor and a few more that I shared classes with. The friendships of youth did not last beyond it, with but a handful of exceptions.
Ms. Mantel gets much of it right in An Experiment in Love: friendship, first love, moving on and away from family. However, towards the end the novel takes several dramatic turns and finally loses its way. First, we realize that what looked like extreme frugality brought on by lack of funds was really a developing case of anorexia. Ms. Mantel’s narrator doesn’t realize this until she becomes ill from it, and it’s a tribute to Ms. Mantel’s narrative that the reader does not either. It’s difficult for me to understand why one becomes anorexic, but after reading An Experiment in Love I can see how it happens. Carmel’s illness surprised me as much as it did her, but it was entirely believable.
There are two very dramatic events at the end of the novel that I won’t reveal. One of them was believable, but the second was so over the top it made me chuckle when I should have been horrified. Really, some editor out there should have said no, you can’t do that. I don’t care if it really did happen in real life, it’s just too much for a novel. And it wasn’t necessary. Know when to say when.
An Experiment in Love is one of Ms. Mantel’s earlier books. Based on the strength of her writing, and her understanding of human behavior, I’ll be looking forward to more of her work.
In the years since I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., I have largely forgotten An Experiment in Love. Re-reading this review today brought much of it back to me. I’m reminded of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Series–I’m currently 100 pages into book three–which is about a friendship between two women who don’t really seem to like each other all that much either. I’ve come to thing it much be a fairly common experience for men and women both. While I don’t remember what it was that happened in An Experiment in Love which took things to far for me when I read it, it does seem like taking things too far is becoming more common. I’m thinking of my reaction to A Little Life and to how I almost reacted to Fates and Furies. I wonder how far Lauren Groff went in her first draft, and if she got advice to take it down a notch the way Hana Yanagihara refused to do in A Little Life. Her book is better for it if she did. Listen to your editors people. They are there to help.