Review: The Answers

In her laconic first novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing, Whiting Award-winner Catherine Lacey explored the life of 29-year-old Elly, who leaves her husband and travels to New Zealand in hopes a rugged new landscape will redefine her. In The Answers, Lacey again focuses on a young woman whose passivity and introspection take her places she never planned. Born Junia Stone in East Tennessee, Mary Parsons was renamed and taken in by her aunt when her Bible-obsessed father tried to raise her "in a state of complete purity." A self-described "homeschooled semi-orphan from a barely literate state," she remembers her time at college as "a gestational period, four years of warning and training for this life that was coming." She graduates and moves to New York City with her loopy roommate Chandra.

Stricken with body-wracking disease, Mary lets Chandra lead her through a maze of traditional health care ("seven specialists, three gynos, five GPs, a psychiatrist, and one grope-y chiropractor") before venturing into Chandra's preferred healers ("a celebrity acupuncturist, a spiritual surgeon, and a guy who sold stinking powders in the back room of a Chinatown fishmonger"). She finally discovers miraculous relief with Chandra's last recommendation: Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia ("PAKing"), as practiced with the hocus-pocus jive of the personal masseuse Ed. Problem is, a full PAKing treatment costs thousands, so Mary turns to Craigslist. She applies for a job with a mysterious employer who is looking for someone to serve as a special girlfriend to movie star Kurt Sky, an experiment to define the nature of love--and to clean up his messy romantic life. On this substrate, Lacey digs into the choppy turf beneath a woman's relationship to her body, her identity and her search for balance between independence and meaningful relationships.

After numerous interviews, Mary is offered a job with the Girlfriend Experiment designed to illuminate love and companionship. As Kurt's "Emotional Girlfriend," she will be one among many woman playing specific roles (e.g., the Anger Girlfriend, the Intimacy Girlfriend, the Maternal Girlfriend) in helping a team of researchers sort out the perfect mate. A bit weird, but the pay is good. Between her tightly scripted contract role as Kurt's Emotional Girlfriend and her expensive sessions with Ed, Mary has no personal relationships at all--until she more closely considers her time with Ed: "all these hours they'd spend together, two adults in a room, half-clothed, trying to make life better. What was that if it wasn't a relationship?" When the job and DAKing sessions inevitably end, Mary has a new perspective on the uncertainty of life. She reflects: "I thought of all those billions of hearts beating out there, trying to find love or keep love going. All those people, getting in the way of each other--how do we even stand it? How do we make our way around?" Lacey doesn't give us answers, but she sure gives us a wild story with a memorable protagonist. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Shelf Talker: In an adept novel filled with wacky alternative health cures and a bizarre celebrity psychological experiment, Whiting Award-winner Lacey showcases a young woman searching for stable ground.

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