Sunday, December 14, 2014

Review of An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel

My kids are doing a historical fiction unit at school. In order for their book of choice to “count” as historical fiction, the story needs to take place prior to 1990.


I suddenly feel pretty historical myself.

Hilary Mantel has a wide body of work that can be considered historical fiction, most notably her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, which I have yet to read.  Those books are positively enormous – in an intimidating way. An Experiment in Love, by contrast, is lean, which is somewhat appropriate given its focus on repression and denial.  This book follows a pair of Irish Catholic girls in England as they come of age in the 1960s. They find themselves together as they climb toward and through higher education, attempting to fulfill (or failing to fulfill?) their mothers’ aspirations that they grow beyond their social station.

If your thoughts about the 1960s involve psychedelic colors and communes and raging politics, you won’t find that here (though there is a hint of campus-based political organizing). This is a portrait of a generation of women caught between traditional roles and modern feminism.  Some of the characters resist tradition, but their resistance is sneaky and under the radar. Rebellion, when it happens, is directed inward, toward the body, as opposed to outward toward society.

This would be a great book to discuss in a group. There are many thematic onion layers to peel back and consider. There is a strand about womanhood and motherhood. There is a strand about appetite (literal and metaphorical). There is a strand about women’s education and what it yields. There’s a strand about sexuality.

This is a truly beautiful story – the writing is stunning. But at the same time, the gorgeous writing masks some rather thin characters. I could never fully “see” these people, and I sat at a distance the whole time I was reading. If one of the benefits of reading historical fiction is to be transported to another time and place, this experience, for me, fell short. But if another benefit is to generate questions about change over time, this experience definitely fit the bill.

You can read an interesting interview with the author here and a more recent one here.

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