“As another day broke, Mary stared at Kurt’s sleeping face, marvelling at how he could be asleep while she was so awake, her eyes and mind clear now, and she knew she loved him in a way that immediately required her to hate him, a little, for how he had never asked her what had happened to her. But this was what people in love do, isn’t it? Give each other their stories as a way to re-hear them, as way to re-understand their histories, what those histories did to them, what they do to them still?”
Mary needs money. Fast. She has debilitating and chronic pain and the only thing that eases her anguish is expensive, potentially crackpot, therapy. She applies for a job as part of something called The Girlfriend Experiment, which she later finds out is some sort of scientific investigation led by a very, very famous actor.
He wants to know whether or not it is possible to service outsource every element of being in a relationship. So there’ll be a maternal girlfriend who will cook and clean, an angry girlfriend who will fight, a mundane girlfriend who will stare out the window, an intellectual girlfriend who will have stimulating conversations with him and several intimate girlfriends who will service the more physical side of relationships. Mary will be the emotional girlfriend. Her job is simply to be the support pillar for this man, to listen to him and to agree with everything he says. She will be paid thousands of dollars a week for just a few hours of work.
Catherine Lacey’s The Answers is an astonishing book that I read cover to cover in almost one sitting. Despite all appearances to the contrary, it doesn’t attempt to have the answers to anything, merely to ask questions. And as Mary gets deeper and deeper into this experiment, there will be plenty of those.
This book stays with you long after you read it. It has the air of dystopian fiction – anything with an experiment at the centre of its plot will veer that way – but eerily is placed in the here and now. Lacey’s writing is limpid and lyrical, her Mary instantly empathetic. She is never fully described, no physical descriptors given, which means that after a while she becomes whoever you want her to be. Towards the ends, I was seeing myself in Mary.
Because that’s the question that The Answers ultimately poses. Not can a relationship ever be more than the sum of its parts? But would you do it?