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Book Review: Chemistry for Beginners by Anthony Strong

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Anthony Strong’s Chemistry for Beginners is a delight of a book, a perfect mix of gentle satire, science, and modern romance. Oddly enough, it does for sex novels what Susanna Clarke’s Jonathon Strange & Mr. Norrell did for fantasy books – it takes what, to most readers, seems a slightly ridiculous genre and elevates it into a literary art.

The story kicks off with the stuffy and slightly pedantic neurobiologist Dr. Steven J. Fisher relating his first meeting with Miss G, the 28th female subject to take part in Dr. Fisher’s study on the complications (or complexities, as Miss G would insist) of the female orgasm, or lack of it. Specifically, Dr. Fisher studies female sexual dysfunction. He thinks he’s found the cure to it — and his ticket to scientific fame and fortune — all within KXC79, a little pill that takes women from sexually unresponsive to quite the opposite.

When Miss G joins the study, however, everything seems to go awry. Although she was an ideal candidate for the study — despite being attractive (as Dr. Fisher notices in a purely scientific way), having a boyfriend, and engaging in sex, she couldn’t have orgasms — her results on the tests don’t seem to make sense. Why, wonders Dr. Fisher, would she claim not to be experiencing anything when all of his data shows that she is “cured”? Could she be the one woman KXC79 doesn’t work on? And why do his own feelings seem to be cropping up into the study in some highly irregular and unscientific ways?

While the book is told through a combination of blog entries from Miss G and personal diaries and notes from other people involved in the research study, the finest parts are related through Dr. Fisher’s research notes, complete with little charts and diagrams. Dr. Fisher’s blissful lack of self-awareness and his rock-solid belief that everything — yes, even sexual attraction — can be explained away by nothing more than irreversible and uncontrollable chemical reactions is reminiscent of the butler, Stevens, in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day: Dr. Fisher is completely blind to his own feelings. He literally can’t see the romance for the orgasms.

Anyone even remotely familiar with the stilted prose of research scientists will adore Mr. Strong’s pitch-perfect science-speak; it manages to be deadly serious and coyly tongue-in-cheek at the same moment. And, of course, it isn’t really a self-respecting novel about science unless there is at least one mention of Schrodinger’s cat (and, in this narrative, there are several).

The idea that one of these days, not too far into the future, scientists will have mapped out the entire human genome and will hold a blueprint to the chemical cause for every reaction, thought, and behavior known to man is an enticing one. Chemistry for Beginners, however, humorously reminds us that there will always be some things that even an exhaustive knowledge of the mechanisms of biology will simply never be able to quantify or explain.

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