I finished reading the last few chapters of Sophie Ward’s “Love and Other Thought Experiments” in my cold empty living room at three in the morning, and had to fight the urge to shake my roommate awake and deliver a passionate monologue about the utter rage and frustration I was feeling at the moment. Instead, I settled for doing a few jumping jacks and pacing around the kitchen for a bit until I exhausted myself.
This novel had so much potential, which is why its bizarre unraveling felt like a sort of betrayal, like I had been cheated. Ward introduces the novel as an emotional story about the relationship between two partners, Rachel and Eliza, as they decide to embark on the journey of raising a child together. One night, Rachel wakes up in hysterics after having a nightmare in which an ant crawled into her eye and took up residence in her brain. She is convinced that this was not just a dream — that there is literally an ant inside of her skull. Eliza is dubious, but also wants to be supportive, though this night marks the beginnings of a strain in their relationship. With that, I was initially very excited to read this novel, as it promised interconnected narratives, Murakami-esque surrealism and lesbians in love — all things that I typically cannot get enough of in literature.
However, this novel revealed itself to actually be an unpleasant smorgasbord of several wildly different texts it was trying to be. Picture “Sophie’s World,” “Cloud Atlas” and some arbitrary science fiction novel about artificial intelligence put into a blender, except there are still huge chunks that weren’t blended properly and give you an unpleasant jolt when you accidentally bite into one. At its core, “Love and Other Thought Experiments” attempts to be a commentary about love and the interdependence of human existence, but the random interjections of philosophy and artificial intelligence feel jarringly out of place, diluting the novel’s resulting effect into pure frustration and pretentiousness. The rapid and abrupt changes in perspectives between each chapter gave this novel an untethered feeling that made it difficult to connect and empathize with any single character. The characters felt static and the dialogue was stilted and awkward.
My favorite character in this entire novel was by far the ant that crawled into Rachel’s eye that night. This is not an attempt at making a cute joke; the chapter that is narrated by the ant that supposedly has taken residence in Rachel’s head was the most lyrical and genuinely gorgeous part of this novel. The ant’s narrative describes how its reality intertwined with the host it has infiltrated, about how it begins to feel human emotion as its consciousness begins to meld with Rachel’s. For instance, the ant, new to human feelings, describes what he feels when Rachel discloses her cancer diagnosis to her mother, saying the “burden of this disguise has worn us both down, wrapped, it seems, in hope and desire, bitter memories and the almond tang of sugar and death.” Take, too, this portion of the chapter that is my favorite part of the entire novel:
My body whirls in the drain that descends from her neck. Are her organs contained in pouches and membranes as her brain is? Or is everything held in place with these ropes that sweep along the vertebrae? Time is running out. Push against the vicious liquid, push harder, feel the pull of the uncharted depths below. Reach a hollow pocket at the top of her spine and lock my jaws on a sinuous wall as the last of the tide flows past me.
Ward is obviously an immensely talented writer who is capable of producing such beautiful prose, but these scintillating gems in the text were not enough for me to ultimately say that I would feel confident recommending, or that I even enjoyed reading, this particular novel, Booker-nominated or not.
Senior Arts Editor Jo Chang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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