“Falls flat” – The Answers by Catherine Lacey

clta1The Answers is a novel about love, loneliness and the science of making relationships. What are the answers to making romantic relationships last? In Catherine Lacey’s ambitious second novel we follow Mary, a young woman living in New York, suffering from an undiagnosed chronic illness (implied to be psychological). Mary is introduced to a mysterious new holistic treatment called Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia – PAKing, for short. Desperate for money to pay for the extortionately expensive treatment, Mary finds a high-paying second job – the Girlfriend Experience, the brainchild of a famous actor. Mary is to play the Emotional Girlfriend, a job that sees her struggling to understand her mind, body, past and future.

The Answers has been well-anticipated, but having read Lacey’s debut novel, Nobody is Ever Missing, which I loved but felt that it got lost in itself and its own stream-of-consciousness style, I can’t help but think that The Answers falls flat for the same reasons. The plot gets sidetracked with long flashbacks and supporting characters’ stories that don’t drive the story forward. The mysterious illness/chronic pain that Mary feels seems overplayed and underdeveloped, with endless scenes and descriptions of symptoms that make me question whether the author really knew what was affecting her. However, my frustration could be placated with the theory that Lacey wants the reader to feel how Mary is feeling: frustrated and unable to distract herself from her symptoms.

Lacy’s exploration of deconstructing relationships is certainly what kept me reading. Employed by a famous celebrity known for his failing love affairs, a number of women are employed to perform different aspects of a girlfriend – from the Emotional Girlfriend, Anger Girlfriend, the Maternal Girlfriend, and a team of the woman acting as the Intimacy team. It is a great concept! We watch the actresses playing the Girlfriends go through the motions of building a couple, segment by segment. It’s interesting to see each aspect of relationships isolated and analysed, and it makes you question what it takes to build happiness as a couple. Unfortunately, the detached writing style and distracted plot-lines kept me frustrated and at arms-length from the story.

Let’s talk about the style. The detached narrative voice stylistically makes sense; Mary feels isolated from her own life and certainly separated from her own emotions. She’s unsure what’s happening in her life and is distracted by thoughts of the past, never quite settled into the present moment. However, in order to trust in a narrative of this style you need to trust that the author knows at heart what is happening and why, what the characters motives and emotions are, and unfortunately for Lacey, I don’t. I had the same issue with her debut novel but held great hopes for this one. The isolated narrative style starts well but doesn’t develop, and ends up appearing as though the character lacks motive, there’s no cause and effect, and more importantly, we always appear to explore scenes a few moments after they happen. What really frustrated me is the age-old trope of showing not telling; I often feel like I’m reading the idea of a scene rather than getting lost in the present moment of the scene.

The Answers is broken into a number of storylines: Mary’s sickness and therapy treatments and the more interesting storyline of the Girlfriend Experiment. For me, the protagonist was frustratingly lacking in self-awareness and motivation – Mary is not just an unreliable narrator as we don’t get given foresight as the reader – a more driven, focused narrative would have served the curious concept much better. The Girlfriend Experiment plot, however, is inspired and interesting, exploring but not answering universal questions: how to keep the passion alive in relationships? Why does love so often falter to resentment? Can we ever really find the answers? Great concept, shame about the protagonist.

Any Cop?: Hmmm… If you enjoyed Nobody is Ever Missing then you’ll probably enjoy this because of its similar detached narrative and protagonist who lacks self-awareness.


Nici West


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