Trigger warning: sexual assault.
Mary is out of options. Estranged from her family, plagued by debt and beset by phantom pain, she signs up for ‘The Girlfriend Experiment’ – a mysterious project masterminded by a famous Hollywood actor who, frustrated by romantic and creative failure, hires a collection of women to fulfil the different roles of a relationship.
Mary is to play the Emotional Girlfriend, alongside a Maternal Girlfriend, a Mundanity Girlfriend, an Anger Girlfriend and, of course, an Intimacy Team. Each woman has her debts and her difficulties, her past loves and her secrets. As Mary and the actor are drawn ever closer together, the nature of the experiment changes, and the Girlfriend’s find themselves exposed to new perils, foremost among them love.
Here, then, is a novel of die-hard faith and fleeting love; of questions which plumb the depths of the human heart, and answers that will leave you reeling.
“Sometimes it seems all I have are questions, that I will ask the same ones all my life. I’m not sure if I even want any answers, don’t think I’d have a use for them, but I do know I’d give anything to be another person – anyone else – for even just a day, an hour. There’s something about that distance I’d do anything to cross.”
The Answers by Catherine Lacey presents an unsettling premise as a means of exploring themes of identity, feminism and romantic relationships in one of my favourite reads of the year.
Mary has run out of options. Beset with a mysterious and debilitating illness no doctor could name or solve (“Whole hospitals shrugged.”), on the recommendation of her hippy friend, Chandra, she turns to an alternative therapy: PAKing. PAKing (Pnuema Adaptive Kinesthesia) seems to work – though Mary suspects the placebo effect – the relief it brings her leaves her with no choice but to proceed with the cripplingly expensive sessions. In order to pay for her treatments, she signs up for a strange-sounding side hustle, The Girlfriend Experiment (or the GX, as it comes to be known) with a famous actor she has never heard of, Kurt Sky.
There is so much to love about The Answers: Lacey’s poetic yet sharp writing, the personification of the emotional labour of women with Emotional Girlfriend and Maternal Girlfriend as actual paid jobs, the irony of the title – The Questions would be a much more accurate name – and the off-putting, almost dystopic premise of the GX.
Early on, Mary states that “Love is a compromise for only getting to be one person”, a thought that forms a kind of mission statement for a book consumed with the reasons relationships fail. It is a study of variously damaged people looking to escape themselves – Mary is unable to make meaningful connections with others because of the complete breakdown of her relationship with her parents whose religion dictates they must live ‘off the grid’; Ashley, another participant in the GX is angry at a world that will only define her by her beauty; Kurt is unable to move past the loss of his mother in his childhood and is consumed by his own toxic masculinity; Matheson, Kurt’s assistant, is stuck serving a man who will never love him back; Chandra is (probably) in a cult.
The GX is also more than it seems. Envisioned initially as the answer to Kurt’s, and perhaps, everybody’s, problems – “truly innovative technological solutions to emotional and psychological problems that were previously thought to be just part of the human condition” – it is derailed by a team of scientists with ulterior motives. Less interested in cracking the key to relationships, the scientists instead want to decode feelings, specifically how to not feel them, or to only feel those things that can be considered “useful”. Girls in the GX are manipulated into feeling love, anger, rejection – even Kurt is programmed to experience moments of emotional intimacy with the women he did not consent to.
Even as the plot veers into the bizarre, Lacey’s intense engagement with her subject matter leads to a work that is painfully human. It was impossible not to see your own feelings reflected in the novel – haven’t we all at some point wished to turn an emotion off? – your own questions, insecurities and feelings of isolation in a world increasingly geared toward leaving us separated from our own, and each other’s, truths.
It was funny to read a novel called The Answers that was so utterly devoid of them. But that, Lacey makes clear, is the point.