I decided to read this book because of the reference to an automaton on the back cover blurb, which immediately got me thinking about E.T.A. Hoffman's short story "The Sandman" (1916).
A gothic classic, "The Sandman" has a strong concept of the "unheimlich" or the uncanny. In other words, when reading it, you are left with an uneasy feeling (an enjoyable uneasy feeling, that is).
In The Chemistry of Tears we meet Catherine, whose lover Mattthew just passed away unexpectedly. Being the mistress, Catherine has to confront her grief and memories on her own. She is set to work piecing together an automaton, a swan built in the 1800s. Among the parts are a bunch of notebooks written by the man who commissioned the swan, a Henry Brandling. To battle her grief, Catherine disappears into Henry's world, and reads obsessively about how the father Henry, after losing a girl child, attempts to nurture his son's will to live by getting a mechanical duck built for him. He leaves his failing marriage and his son behind to go to Germany to find a clockmaker who can build the duck for him. His welcome is anything but warm, but a mysterious Herr Sumper is willing to help him. In his desperation, Henry provides all the funds he has, and finds himself a prisoner whilst awaiting the construction of his duck. However, the elusive Herr Sumper seems to have other ideas, and Henry soon has doubts about his duck ever being constructed.
In the present time, Catherine drowns herself in alcohol, works on the swan with Amanda, an assistant who is not altogether balanced, and gets unexpected visits on her doorstep. Finding the secrets of the swan becomes almost an obsession to her, especially when she finds a cube that Karl, Herr Sumper's prodigy helper must have left there. Catherine is pushing the boundaries more and more, taking the cube home with her as a sort of souvenir, all the while refusing Amanda to even think about the significance of the cube. Amanda is convinced that the swan holds dark and menacing secrets.
As the mysteries surrounding its conception start to unravel, other mysteries appear. Herr Sumper gives dark testimonies to Henry, who shakes it all off as bogus, but both Catherine, and we as the readers can feel the chill run down our spines. The end of the novel is left rather open, and we are left with a delightfully uncanny feeling of not knowing.
If I had reread "The Sandman" while reading this novel, I am sure I would have a lot more to say about the obvious link between them. However, some parallels are clear. Both deal with someone who passed away and is being grieved. Both deal with a sort of haunting. And both deal with a sort of impossible love story.
I enjoyed this novel quite a lot. Henry's Gothic story sucked me in and left me hungry for more. Catherine's attempt to come to terms with the sudden death of her lover for thirteen years, in a world where she is not allowed to grieve him openly, touched me deeply (all my relationships together don't even come to thirteen years!).