in review: The Answers
by Catherine Lacey
Publication Date: June 6, 2017
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Readers may be drawn in by the premise of The Answers, Catherine Lacey's second novel. As the book jacket explains, a movie star devises an "experiment" in which the duties of a girlfriend are parceled out to individuals playing various roles. Our protagonist, Mary, who has a mysterious ailment and even more mysterious backstory, is assigned the role of the Emotional Girlfriend.It's a bizarre concept, but one that the book spends relatively little time with. Instead, it serves as a springboard for Lacey to delve into something beautiful and important: an examination of what it means to be in love, what it means to connect to another person.
Lacey explores these potentially cliché questions through a truly unique character—Mary’s voice is different from that of any other narrator I’ve read in recent years, perhaps ever. She is written in a way that conveys both the heavy impact of her unusual background and the complexities of the character herself. Her past experiences with her religious extremist parents give her a sense of fragility as she navigates a world she knows little about, but at the same time, her innate character allows her to emerge as someone with deeply held convictions of her own, even as she questions nearly everything around her. It’s a testament to Lacey’s talent that these two forces never appear to conflict with each other, rather forming a duality that makes Mary a far more interesting character than she may first appear.
As deftly as Mary is portrayed, there came a point at which I felt myself growing weary of reading her introspective inner monologue. But just as I started to become fatigued, the narrative exploded into the second part of the novel. No longer did the prose hew closely to Mary’s experience; instead, it followed a number of seemingly minor characters, developing them fully and allowing their perspectives to round out the themes of the book without ever coming across as heavy-handed. The complex, multidimensional characters of The Answers contrasted sharply and tellingly with movie star Kurt’s archetypes created for his “Girlfriend Experience.” Just as Mary is much more than Kurt’s artificial “Emotional Girlfriend,” the other actors in Kurt’s experiment emerge as fully realized humans rather than archetypes. Ashley, the Anger Girlfriend, is particularly engaging, serving as Mary’s foil or, perhaps, her complement.
Lacey’s prose kept me spellbound as the narrative turned, splintered, and finally became whole again. This is a novel that demands to be read slowly in order to appreciate not only the nuance of its ideas but the beauty of its writing. Nearly every page sparkles with sentences that linger. “Eventually she got out of bed, took a long shower, gargling and spitting mouthfuls of water, then screaming, just a little and quietly,” Lacey writes near the end of one chapter. “It seemed her whole life had been a series of waves, that everything and everyone she’d ever known had come at her with a force she couldn’t fight, rushing in, roaring, sucking her down, nearly drowning her before spewing her out again, leaving her alone on a shore before another wave came over her, another force from some unseen center.” As I approached the book’s final pages, I found myself slowing down, cherishing it, not wanting it to end.
The Answers is, quite simply, the most stunning book I’ve read in quite some time. Contrary to its name, there are no answers here, only questions for the reader to ponder long after turning the final page.