The Answers, Catherine Lacey: Book Review

the answers catherine lacey book reviewFarrar, Straus and Giroux / Catherine Lacey
The Answers Book Cover The Answers
Catherine Lacey
Contemporary Fiction
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
June 6, 2017

Mary Parsons is broke. Dead broke, really: between an onslaught of medical bills and a mountain of credit card debt, she has been pushed to the brink. Hounded by bill collectors and still plagued by the painful and bizarre symptoms that doctors couldn’t diagnose, Mary seeks relief from a holistic treatment called Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia―PAKing, for short. Miraculously, it works. But PAKing is prohibitively expensive. Like so many young adults trying to make ends meet in New York City, Mary scours Craigslist and bulletin boards for a second job, and eventually lands an interview for a high-paying gig that’s even stranger than her symptoms or the New Agey PAKing.

Mary’s new job title is Emotional Girlfriend in the “Girlfriend Experiment”―the brainchild of a wealthy and infamous actor, Kurt Sky, who has hired a team of biotech researchers to solve the problem of how to build and maintain the perfect romantic relationship, cast - ing himself as the experiment’s only constant. Around Kurt, several women orbit as his girlfriends with spe - cific functions. There’s a Maternal Girlfriend who folds his laundry, an Anger Girlfriend who fights with him, a Mundanity Girlfriend who just hangs around his loft, and a whole team of girlfriends to take care of Intimacy. With so little to lose, Mary falls headfirst into Kurt’s messy, ego-driven simulacrum of human connection.

This review contains some spoilers and quotes from the book.

The Answers, the newest novel by Catherine Lacey, is one of my new favorite stories for so many reasons: it’s entertaining, compelling, and beautifully written, and so smart.

When we meet the main character, Mary, she’s living in New York City and she’s in pain. Chronically. All over. With no explanation. Her only company is her best (and really, only) new-agey friend, who talks Mary into a new-agey remedy for her pain called PAK-ing, which involves crystals and chants and a lot of digging into her past.

As the book picks up, we learn that Mary grew up secluded, with hyper-religious parents and little connection to the outside world—they wanted her to be pure. This makes her the perfect candidate for one of the subjects in the experiment that mass-celebrity Kurt Sky is putting on—about how to solve love, and about what love does to a person’s level of creativity. She’s perfect because she’s never even heard of a Kurt Sky.

For quite a bit of money and guided by her handbook, Mary will play the Emotional Girlfriend. There are, obviously, others: The Anger Girlfriend (who narrates a chunk of the book as well), The Maternal Girlfriend, The Intellectual Girlfriend (who’s handling is my favorite), The Intimate Girlfriend, and so on. Each has a strict set of rules and scripts to follow. (Almost makes you wonder how one woman could ever play all those roles, eh?!). Paying close attention to chemical reactions inside each participant, the researchers find a way to simulate the feeling of love inside someone. And from the editing room, it all unfolds. You see, this was all Kurt’s latest project—his newest movie. And it’s perfect.

The Answers deals curiously and intensely with ideas we all want to wonder about: love, identity, self, our past, pain. And more importantly, how we perform all of these things. This sounds like a lot to tackle in 300 pages, and it is. But Lacey does it so gracefully and generously; she is successful because of her ability to leave a non-fully-formed thought as just what it is: sometimes, without an answer.

In one sense the most compelling aspect of Lacey’s novel is her ability to capture complexities. There are so many strong sentences to dissect.

For example, I paused over this one: There was at least one morning I was certain, though only for a few hours, that everything that could ever really happen to me had already happened to me…I try not to be so certain anymore, and this: all she ever said to me about him was you can only love a person that much once in your life, and I didn’t know enough to agree or disagree with her. What a terrible and beautiful delusion, and how sad if it’s true.

There is such a sense of uncertainty here, an authority that comes from Lacey’s ability to get us on board and trust the questions of the characters, and thus to feel the power of the questions. And that is what is so beautiful to watch: the way Lacey—and thus, the characters—question.

There are thoughts that are not fully-formed, thoughts that wonder and wander, and there are ideas that we watch come to life; there are so, so many questions asked. One that stood out to me, in particular, was at the end of the book, when Mary asks, of love: How to best love? How to know anything, for certain, in another’s heart? Such a serious thing we are doing, and no one really knows how to do it.

As a reader, I like this—I am not being told how to feel, I am being asked to wonder. I get to see that these characters, this writer, aren’t made to have everything sorted or figured out, and I get to watch the process of exploring ideas as I undertake the process myself. And it is in this way that the novel’s strength comes from its relationship to the title: “The Answers”— it does not claim to have them. But it wonders.

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Carliann Rittman
the authorCarliann Rittman
Contributing Writer
Currently at NYU, probably feverishly reading messy memoirs about musicians.