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An Experiment in Love

Hilary Mantel

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To purchase An Experiment in Love

Title: An Experiment in Love
Author: Hilary Mantel
Genre: Novel
Written: 1995
Length: 250 pages
Availability: An Experiment in Love - US
An Experiment in Love - UK
An Experiment in Love - Canada
Ein Liebesexperiment - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B : well-written though dispiriting

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian A 26/2/1995 Helen Dunmore
The Guardian A- 14/3/1995 Philip Hensher
The LA Times B- 29/5/1996 Richard Eder
New Statesman & Society . 24/2/1995 Judy Cooke
The New Yorker . 30/9/1996 .
The NY Rev. of Books A 8/8/1996 Gabriele Annan
The NY Times Book Rev. A 2/6/1996 Margaret Atwood
The Spectator A- 4/3/1995 Anita Brookner
TLS . 24/2/1995 Julia O'Faolain

  Review Consensus:

  Generally enthusiastic, though a sense of wariness in many of the reviews. Most find it both bleak and funny.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mantel's account of Carmel's journey from Lancashire childhood to anorexic collapse on the stairs of Tonbridge Hall is immaculate in its pace, its sinewy humour and vitality. (...) Hilary Mantel is a wonderfully unsurprised dissector of human motivation, and in An Experiment in Love she has written a bleak tale seamed with crackling wit." - Helen Dunmore, The Guardian

  • "Mantel is such a strong observer of behaviour and such a capable stringer of incident that her lack of originality doesn't matter much." - Philip Hensher, The Guardian

  • "Mantel writes from anger: at poverty, at the class system, at the social and economic forces bearing down on women who tried to struggle up from below in Britain in the late '60s. Carmel's voice is powerful, but it is also unrelenting. The characters and incidents she relates, though varied and acutely portrayed, blur through a scrim of misery. She does not so much convey the awful Karina--villain and in some way victim--as denounce her. Her story lacks the light we need to see the darkness." - Richard Eder, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Hilary Mantel is justly compared to Muriel Spark as a satirist; this cunning plot with its hidden agenda of violence and betrayal has something in common with Spark's elegant parables." - Judy Cooke, New Statesman & Society

  • "(Mantel) specializes in shock effects, especially aftershock, which is what her book ghoulishly delivers. Her approach is slow and stealthy; the hair on the back of the neck rises, not all of a sudden, but gradually. The effect depends, of course, on the incongruity between the ordinariness of Carmel's progress, and the horrors it skirts." - Gabriele Annan, The New York Review of Books

  • "If there's any complaint, it's that we want to know more; like Carmel herself, the book could have been a little fatter. What happened to Karina and Carmel after the horrifying denouement? But perhaps that's the point: it's what you'll never know that haunts you; and with all its brilliance, its sharpness and its clear-eyed wit, An Experiment in Love is a haunting book." - Margaret Atwood, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The novel, though expert, is unsettling. It is unsettling through its lack of affect, though this is also its strength. (...) A clear-eyed examination of female alliances may well be needed in these misleading times. An Experiment in Love may well be such an examination, cool, unsentimental, and unassumingly authoritative." - Anita Brookner, The Spectator

  • "A blend of satire and elusive fable worked beautifully for Mantel in Fludd, but this time the mix feels wrong. Perhaps didacticism is to blame." - Julia O'Faolain, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       An Experiment in Love is a novel of coming of age, of reaching adulthood. The narrator is Carmel McBain, who looks back on her youth and specifically her university days (around 1970). She comes from a relatively poor background, her parents working class and, though living in England, of Irish-Catholic stock. Academic success allows Carmel to free herself from this world, at least in some respects.
       Carmel escapes provincial Lancashire when her exam results are good enough to get her a university spot in London. Two of her classmates from her previous school, the Holy Redeemer, are also there: Karina, with her unpronounceable East European last name, and Julianne (later Julia) Lipcott. Among the first choices Carmel must make at the residence at the university is which of the two she is to share a room with.
       Carmel moves the story back and forth between the student days in London and what preceded it -- at the convent school, and in her childhood -- as well as briefly touching upon the present, years after these events. Carmel's poverty and class background play a big role in defining her, especially at the convent school and also later at university. She is drawn to the world Julianne, the doctor's daughter, inhabits (the book begins with the memories set off by seeing Julia(nne)'s picture in the newspaper), but knows she has much in common with poor Karina as well. At the residence hall she chooses to share a room with Julianne. Karina lives nearby, with Lynette -- a girl with all the qualities Carmel admires.
       There are the usual events that one might expect in any university women's residence: some academic stuff, problems with love and sex (including a pregnancy). The friendship between Carmel, Julianne, and Karina is what is most significant. It can hardly be described as friendship: they don't seem to like each other all that much, but they do take care of and look out for each other, feeling some sort of bond. It is one that is easily broken, as they eventually easily drift apart in their separate lives. The experiment in love of the title is not the usual amorous one or ones, focussing instead on friendship and mutual support. They experiment but youth and fear and insecurity doom them to failure. "It would be nice if we went about and talked like an Edna O'Brien novel," Julianne says. "It would suit us." But they don't -- they talk like a Mantel novel, a darker, sadder thing.
       Food plays an important role -- perhaps too simple a device, as employed by Mantel here. Karina grows progressively fatter and fatter, while Carmel first watches what she eats because she has so little money and then starves herself in an anorexic fit after she breaks up with her boyfriend. Julia(nne), studying medicine, will go on to become a specialist in anorexia.
       The book also takes a dark turn with its end, when a fire breaks out in the residence. The turn is very dark indeed, a fairly shocking conclusion.
       At the end Carmel can write about these formative years that "that is where we went wrong". Not your usual happy end, all the characters are marked by their complex and ultimately unsatisfactory relationships with each other. This is not a case of young women finding strength together -- far from it. Tellingly it is the most rounded figure, Lynette, that finally suffers most.
       Mantel writes well, but it is not the most pleasant of tales she tells. A nicely constructed book, with many of the usual fine Mantel brushstrokes (capturing so much with what seems to be so little effort), An Experiment in Love is a very fine book. But not a happy one.

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An Experiment in Love: Reviews: Hilary Mantel: Other books by Hilary Mantel under Review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       English author Hilary Mantel was born in 1952. Author of several highly praised novels, she won the Hawthornden Prize in 1996.

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