An Experiment in Love, Hilary Mantel, Henry Holt and Company, 1996, 250 pp
I was so enchanted by Wolf Hall that I resolved to read Hilary Mantel's other novels. I had not heard of her before Wolf Hall won the Booker Prize and I don't think she was very well-known in the United States previously, but is highly respected in England. She has published ten novels, An Experiment in Love being her seventh.
It is a sad, sad tale, very English and it reminded me of Anne Enright's The Gathering. Somehow, Mantel's writing just drags you into the hearts of her characters and keeps you there feeling all their sufferings, fleeting joys, hopes and confusions, as they move through their lives. It is actually excruciating but that is often just what I want in a novel.
Carmel McBain comes from working class Irish-Catholic parents who settled in one of those mill towns in the Liverpool area (where the Beatles came from.) By the time their only child was born, the town was dying. Both parents worked and scrimped but Carmel's mother, in her own emtionally stunted way, pushed her daughter to aspire for more.
This is a coming-of-age story of Carmel as she leaves her Catholic girlhood, goes to college in the 60s, learns about and lives through sex, love and birth control while she studies and starves on her scholarship grant. It is a familiar plot, this trajectory of a sheltered young woman moving into fuller life in the big wide treacherous world of late 20th century life.
The telling of the tale is what got me. From Shirley Jackson's Hangsaman to Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, we get these stories that are almost the female side of the Holden Caufield thing. And the female experience is more fraught with emotional danger just because we are the second sex.
(An Experiment in Love is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)