Peter Carey’s 12th novel is a story about obsessions arguing a solid case for moderation. Seesawing between the rich Victorian patron who commissions a one-of-a-kind toy and the museum curator restoring the fruits of his labors, The Chemistry Of Tears exhibits a fascination with such creators—but at arm’s length, too far away to get an accurate look.
The curator, Catherine Gehrig, receives the commission to restore a 19th-century automaton—a swan that “swims” on glass and “eats” silver fish—right after finding out her married lover has died of a heart attack. The solitude and diligence of the reconstruction is intended to allow her to grieve decently in private after her kindly boss sees her prescribing herself bed rest and vodka to get over him. While unpacking the swan’s parts, Catherine discovers the journal of its original owner, Henry Brandling, who was motivated by a more anticipatory kind of grief: Having lost two children, Henry attempts to salvage his marriage by traveling to Germany, where master craftsmen can build the extravagant toy for Percy, his sole remaining, extremely sick son.
Bouncing this shared obsession off itself through time brings forth some clever parallels, but the novel’s alternating chapters also produce frustration, as the brutality of Catherine’s sorrow overpowers the petty irritations of Henry’s trip abroad. (Anyone who doubted the traveling fitness of the aristocratic bumblers of Carey’s last novel, Parrot & Olivier In America, will laugh at Henry’s aversions to the indignities of small talk and asparagus.) On a mechanical level, treating Henry and Catherine as spatial contemporaries lessens the weight of Henry’s anxiety over whether he’ll ever see his commission come to life; since her story is predicated on his, his angst is a waste of time.
Since Henry and Catherine are collectors, not inventors, their instinct is to be close to the creative flame without being able to ignite it. This forces them into passively examining others’ work more than is useful to the plot, while the designer of the automaton—Henry’s employee Herr Sumpter—is a riddle-speaking mystery. With none of Sumpter’s skill, Carey hammers home the importance of the automaton as a preservation symbol to both its caretakers, but only succeeds with Catherine. Her passing flushes of enthusiasm over the project, countering her urge to self-destruct, can’t build effectively because Henry’s past keeps interrupting her present. The Chemistry Of Tears aims to put these two damaged people back together, and in Catherine’s case, it almost succeeds, but without revealing how they really operate, it’s an empty exercise.