The Answers offers an inquisitive, often longing contemplation of identity, love, faith, and their morphing nature.
Catherine Lacey’s second novel The Answers offers an inquisitive, often longing contemplation of identity, love, faith, and their morphing nature. The book follows Mary, who was raised by her God-fearing father off the grid in Pennsylvania to keep her in a supposed state of “purity.” At 17, she was adopted by her aunt and rehabilitated into modern society, left for college in New York, and remained there for her adult life. Now 30, she pays exorbitant costs for treatments of undiagnosed health issues and needs supplemental income.
Mary is hired for a high-paying study called The Girlfriend Experience (GX), which divides actor-director Kurt Sky’s attention among several partners with designated roles. Despite sharing him as a significant other, the girls are restricted from acknowledging each other’s existence during the experiment. Mary is cast as his Emotional Girlfriend through such milestones such as a going on a first date, trading keys and professing her “love.” Because of her sheltered upbringing, her limited social skills prevent her from making any genuine connection. Instead, she’s mansplained out of expressing herself by Kurt’s self-important, ad nauseum recounts of his history and woes. Another participant, Ashley, is cast as Kurt’s Anger Girlfriend, charged to verbally and physically degrade him.
GX thrusts Mary into an exploration of self and her beliefs; she’s unequipped to tackle these, but the search leads her to revisits her origins, namely, the aunt who introduced her to the joys of modern life and the father who tried to shield her from them. Still, she doesn’t find closure, and is forced to examine herself and to come to her own conclusions about her life.
The author’s prose mimics human thought, sometimes running in long, occasionally parallel structured sentences punctuated by shorter, incomplete phrases. With dialogue italicized rather than enclosed in quotes, it feels like the characters are thinking rather than speaking. The author’s imagery often suggests characters being spiritually torn apart and pieced back together or being overpowered by forces both natural and supernatural. In perhaps her most beautifully apt description of Mary, she compares her life to “a series of waves” sending everything and everyone she’s known rushing over, drowning and “spewing her out” alone onshore before it happens again.
Often left confused or helpless by her interactions and situations, Mary is a blank slate with little agency, and she serves as Lacey’s authorial avatar. The Answers explores how an individual’s sense of identity affects how they experience love. Mary’s weak self-concept and wish to become another person makes it easy for Kurt to impose his perception of her as a romantic partner, and she’s never sure if she developed real feelings for him.
Throughout the novel, Mary’s faith is presented less as religious indoctrination and more as her need for control and certainty in a world that confounds her with complicated modern conveniences and social norms. In a way, her treatment sessions become her new faith. Their combination of New Age energy healing, meditation and massage therapy that provides relief from her illness, whereas other methods only stranded her in economic and emotional desperation.
Taking on a social stance, Lacey paints misogynistic micro-aggressions and outright attacks against the female characters in scenes vague yet pointed enough to make readers squirm. These examples are purposefully bleak in a declaration that yes, this is part of the female experience. However, the story brings Mary and Ashley together at the end almost like sisters, offering them chances of self-empowerment and delivering as a feminist text.
Lacey’s incisive, heartfelt examination of human behavior and thought pulls readers through a narrative that can feel endlessly baffling and painful. Even when some of the players are worn down to their least appealing traits, the poetic writing and insightful debate are enticing in their lyricism, and lead to character development, albeit belatedly. Her observations into the ambiguous are astute and probing enough to rope readers into seeking answers to human quandaries; whether one accepts the author’s answers, or develops their own, is up to the reader.