Startling and stunning and compulsively strange, Lacey’s (The Art of the Affair, 2017, etc.) sophomore novel is a haunting investigation into the nature of love.
“I’d run out of options,” reflects Mary Parsons, a young woman with a haunted past. “That’s how these things usually happen.” After a year and a half overcome with sickening, inexplicable pain—headaches, back aches, strange lumps, broken ribs—Mary is desperate for relief in any form she can find it. And she does find it, in something called Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia—PAKing, for short. But while searching for a second job to pay for the treatment (“neuro-physio-chi bodywork” is pricey), Mary stumbles upon a mysterious ad for a high-paying, low-time-commitment “income-generating experience.” After several increasingly bizarre interviews, she finds herself embroiled in narcissistic actor Kurt Sky’s “Girlfriend Experiment”—a supposedly scientific inquiry designed to uncover and perfect the mechanisms of romantic love. Mary will be playing the role (though it is not, the researchers are clear, an acting job) of “Emotional Girlfriend,” one of a cadre of themed Girlfriends—Anger Girlfriend, Maternal Girlfriend, Intellectual Girlfriend—each assigned to handle a single facet of partnership. Her job: listen, ask questions, touch the actor’s hand at appropriate intervals. After five weeks, exchange keys; after two to four months, say “I love you” after “an emotionally intimate moment.” Observant and almost pathologically self-contained, Mary is an unusually good fit for the gig. But when Kurt’s attachment intensifies, Mary becomes increasingly entangled in his unsettling quest as the boundaries between them grow increasingly less stable. Far from distilling love, the experiment only complicates it, as the possibility of perfect connection seems to slip ever further out of reach. With otherworldly precision and subtle wit, Lacey creates a gently surreal dreamscape that’s both intoxicating and profound.
A singular novel; as unexpected as it is rich.