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16th May
2011
written by Steph

It is official: I have a new girl crush. Most of the objects of my Sapphic affection tend to be these really brilliant brainy ladies (who have kick-ass senses of humor), so it should come as no surprise that I am now inducting Scarlett Thomas into my club of “Women I Would Go Gay For”. She is just so very smart! What can I say? Most men tend to appreciate either boobs or legs, but me, I’m all about your cerebral cortex. I read my first Scarlett Thomas book, Our Tragic Universe, last year, and found it immensely provocative. I didn’t think it was a perfect novel, but so few are, and I found the ideas that Thomas explored there so irresistible and vital that I knew I would need to read more things by her. Since her books are thinking novels, I found that my appreciation for OTU grew as my distance to it increased; I found I couldn’t stop thinking about the quandaries Thomas had posed and I had increasingly strong desires to reread it. So when I saw a copy of The End of Mr. Y on my friend Trisha’s bookshelf, I immediately asked to borrow it so I could continue my exploration of Thomas’s oeuvre and all the wacky ideas she poses. One thing that I love about Thomas’s books is how the back blurbs always make them sound exactly like my kind of book, and then when I start reading them there is so much more to them than I ever could have imagined or desired. Take The End of Mr. Y: Ariel Manto is a PhD student (check!) researching an overlooked 19th century author (check!) who wrote a book (known as “The End of Mr. Y”) of which there are no longer any existing copies. Or so Ariel thinks until she happens to stumble upon a copy of The End of Mr. Y while in a used bookstore (check!) not long after her dissertation advisor has gone missing (check!). Oh and did I mention the book is purportedly cursed such that everyone who reads it winds up dying? (check!) Ariel knows she must read this book, and in so doing, changes the very course of her life and the nature of her existence. Essentially The End of Mr. Y sucks you in by making you think it’s going to be a book about a cursed book, but in reality that is only scratching the surface of this novel. It’s so hard to describe what happens in the latter half of the novel, in part because it would ruin some surprises, but also because it would just be so very hard to succinctly and coherently explain the rollercoaster of an adventure that readers are in for. Once again Thomas delves deep into concepts of reality and the possibility of multiple universes being in existence and the role language plays in structuring consciousness, and while I had no idea that these elements were going to be part of the novel, I am such a nerd that of course I was thrilled to find them here. I really love the way Thomas infuses her novels with philosophy and physics (remember, I have a background in science!), how she isn’t afraid to tackle big questions and intellectually demanding concepts. In this book there was this whole discussion on the concept of multiple universes and how it relates to the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics that kind of just blew my mind in the very best possible way. It is really gratifying to find an author who is not only convinced that her readers are capable of intense thought and contemplation but practically demands that of them. While her books are summarized in this “adventure thrill ride” kind of way, they definitely make you work and are cognitively rigorous, but for me it’s always worthwhile in the end. And speaking of the end, this one was spectacular! I will hide my thoughts because I wouldn’t want to ruin it for those of you who haven’t read the book, but essentially: I love books that weave in religious allusions and I thought it was so cool to parallel Ariel & Adam with Adam & Eve and to present the possibility that they are going back the Garden and are about to start the world going once more, but in this different plane of reality/existence. I love books that end in such an open-ended way so as to suggest that the real story is just beginning and the possibilities are boundless, and I think this really nailed that feeling since it’s kind of like going back to the very beginning. Or maybe I totally misinterpreted this section and that isn’t at all what Thomas was going for… Maybe on a future reading I’d interpret things differently? That said, I admit that I might have personally liked the first half the novel slightly more than the second half, but that just might be because I am such an academia geek and love books that focus on lost novels… but certainly the second half of the novel was not bad, and I could definitely see most people having the opposite preference of my own. I could also see how some people might feel that Thomas might spend to much time meandering through weight existential issues rather than focusing on pure plot acceleration, but for me that is the part of the draw of these books. I’m not looking for a Dan Brown treasure-hunt novel, because well, I could just read Dan Brown if that’s what I wanted. I really respect that Thomas is always trying to do new things in her books and that she isn’t afraid of stretching the boundaries of fiction, so for me, her novels are always a trip. All to say that I find Scarlett Thomas’s brain incredibly sexy and am now obsessed with collecting her books and casually web stalking her. I have not taken to Photoshopping myself into pictures with her, but I suspect that as I read more things by her, that is only a matter of time. If you haven’t read her but would like to feel simultaneously brilliant and stupid (it’s an odd sensation, but one I am slowly getting used to as it occurs more frequently) then you really must give Scarlett Thomas a try! Another quality writer who happens to have ovaries who deserves more exposure and credit, so do your part to give her the accolades she warrants! Rating: 4.5 out of 5

20 Comments

  1. 05/16/2011

    You’ve talked me into checking this out. And actually because from your review the author reminds me a bit of Richard Powers, whose Gold Bug Variations (combining ideas from biology and music) was just one of the most brilliant books I ever read. His other books are also very intellectually demanding, and this author sounds like that too. But wait! You say the author has ovaries?!!! hmmmmm :–)

  2. Hm. Never heard of this, and suddenly all I want to do is read it. Adding it to my ever-growing list. Awesome review!

  3. 05/16/2011

    I had such a love/hate thing for Our Tragic Universe and I swore off Scarlett Thomas — I thought — until I saw your review here and then I got all ‘hmmm, do I really want to say that?’. I think you’ve convinced me to give TEMY a try because I’m so curious about the premise!

  4. 05/16/2011

    Wow, I’ve never heard of this book or this author before, but now I definitely want to check it out! The plot sounds vaguely Shadow of the Wind-esque, but told in a different way. I also LOVE that you have a list of “Women You’d Go Gay For” which reminds me of my “Heroines who don’t annoy me” list 🙂

  5. I loved this one too! I think I was disappointed by Our Tragic Universe because I’d already experienced this amazing book and OTU had such a disappointing plot in comparison. I think you did the right thing reading them in the reverse order.

    I have all her other books on my shelf, but am worried my expectations are too high. I guess I’ll just have to go for it and hope at least some of her magic is present in them, but I’m very pleased you are are Thomas fan too.

  6. 05/16/2011

    I love those books that end up being everything you hoped for and more. Currently feeling that way about Thousand Autumns. My David Mitchell obsession grows with every book of his that I read! I really, really appreciate this in writers too:

    “…an author who is not only convinced that her readers are capable of intense thought and contemplation but practically demands that of them. While her books are summarized in this “adventure thrill ride” kind of way, they definitely make you work and are cognitively rigorous, but for me it’s always worthwhile in the end.”

    And now you’ve got me all curious about Scarlett Thomas!! Hahah where do you recommend I start?

  7. 05/18/2011

    @ rhapsody: Oh, I’ve really been wanting to try the Gold Bug Variations as it sounds like a book I would love! So glad to hear you found it brilliant; I hope you feel similarly about this one! 😀
     
    @ jenn: Well that’s what we book bloggers are here for, right? To spread the addiction!
     
    @ Audra: Thanks for commenting! I too had a love/hate relationship with OTU when I was reading it, but as I said it has since grown on me. That said, I think a lot of people who enjoyed this book were underwhelmed with OTU (just look at Jackie!) so it really might be worth your time. It is definitely a more cohesive narrative, so depending on what you struggled with in OTU, you might find this one infinitely more rewarding.
     
    @ Aarti: I can definitely see the Shadow of the Wind comparisons on the surface, but the book definitely goes off in a very different direction. The missing/cursed book bit is really just a quarter of the novel and this book is definitely WAY more cerebral.
    Also, love the idea of a “heroines who don’t annoy me” list!
     
    @ Jackie: Next up is PopCo for me, so I really am reading her books in backwards order! 😀 As you know, I don’t always need a ripping plot in order to like a book which is perhaps why OTU worked as well as it did for me. Also, as you rightly point out, I didn’t have any preconceptions to weigh me down going in.
    For what it’s worth, a friend of mine has now read all of Thomas’s novel and she insists PopCo is the best. I think it is definitely more like Mr Y. than OTU.
     
    @ tuesday: Mitchell is another author I need to read more of! I did finally read Cloud Atlas last year and wound up liking it very much (after swearing for years I would hate it! 😉 ), so I must obtain and read his other novels.
    I think in some ways this may be Thomas’s most accessible novel that many people seem to enjoy so it might be a good place to get the bug. I admit that many might struggle with her third book, Our Tragic Universe, but I really liked that too and I think you might as well. But perhaps start here and if you have fun with it, try her other stuff?
     
    @ Alex: Oh, her hardcovers are SO pretty! I kind of only want to buy her books in hardcover now just because of how nice they look on the shelves. Like works of art. But the contents are definitely quality stuff too so don’t let their prettiness turn you off!
     
    @ zibilee: OTU is more philosophical and less scientific than this book, I think, so I wouldn’t worry about it going over your head in that respect. I think that even though Thomas takes these esoteric high-level concepts, she is able to present them in fundamental ways that most people can appreciate on some level. I certainly am no expert when it comes to quantum physics, so certain bits probably surpassed my understanding but certainly Thomas is not writing with the expectation that everyone understands this stuff! Don’t let it scare you off!
     
    @ Pam: I always let my crushes sway my reviews! I can’t help it! 😉

  8. 05/17/2011

    I’ve seen these books around and they have a great design (black sides!). I’ve been very judgmental and never picked them up because I though they were trying too hard to look attractive. Shame on me! I’ll give them a change now 😛

  9. 05/17/2011

    After reading your review of Our Tragic Universe some months ago, I went out and got a copy of the book, and am anxious to read it. But you mention that this book includes high-level science, and I am not so sure I would do well with that. Would this still be a book I could enjoy with almost no science knowledge?

  10. Ok, way to sell a book on a crush! It looks really good, even without the gushing. :O)

  11. 05/18/2011

    Zibilee: I am a science dummy and found the concepts in OTU to be provocative but not beyond me. The book gave me a very visceral reaction and still sticks with me, some seven months later!

    Steph: Between you and Jackie, I think I’m going to have to give this a try – Scarlett Thomas certainly writes things that stick.

  12. Amanda
    05/19/2011

    I love that you read this! Last summer, I found this in a second-hand store and it sounded different enough to be some entertaining summer reading. Well, I was hooked and read the whole thing in one long weekend. I agree with everything you say (the first part was better, but the ending was – wow!)

    I’ll have to give Our Tragic Universe a shot this summer.

  13. 05/19/2011

    Yay! I LOVED this book and was stunned by its originality. Thomas certainly has some interesting ideas. And she’s not afraid to tackle difficult concepts such as quantum mechanics. I preferred this to Our Tragic Universe (which I also really enjoyed) and have Popco on my TBR. She’s definitely one to watch out for.

  14. 05/20/2011

    @ Audra: I do think it’s worth your time… Reading your review of OTU it actually sounded like you liked the book quite a lot… whereas when I read my review, it sounds like I didn’t! It’s funny how a little distance from a book can so change our opinions of it! 😉
     
    @ Amanda: How wonderful to find this in a used bookstore! I think that totally adds to its charm, given the beginning of the book! I do love how Scarlett Thomas never risks creating a banal read.
     
    @ sakura: Yes, I love that Thomas isn’t afraid of letting her brilliance shine through in her novels and has made it her mission to craft intellectually rigorous novels. She’s sooooo smart, and now I really can’t wait to track down Popco!

  15. JoV
    05/21/2011

    I have POPco with me and yet to read The End of Mr. Y and Popco! I count Scarlett Thomas as “The woman I would go gay for” too (You are funny!). Love “The tragic Universe” maybe because it was my first Thomas. When will you be reading Popco?

  16. 05/30/2011

    Awesome review, Steph! I read the first chapter of ‘The End of Mr.Y’ because it was excerpted in Thomas’ previous book ‘PopCo’ and I loved that first chapter. I haven’t read the book yet, but after your raving review, I want to read it soon 🙂 ‘The End of Mr.Y’ does seem to cover some weighty topics. After having read ‘PopCo’ (it is about cryptography, in case you haven’t read it yet – highly recommended!) I have become a big fan of hers!

    I liked your comment about feeling “simultaneously brilliant and stupid” and your club of “Women I Would Go Gay For” 🙂

    Thanks for this wonderful review!

  17. 05/31/2011

    @ JoV: I definitely want to read PopCo! I just need to find a copy of it…
     
    @ Vishy: I think that The End of Mr. Y is probably very similar to PopCo in terms of the way the “weighty topics” are integrated into the novel, so I definitely think you should read it! How could you not after having teased yourself with that first chapter?!?

  18. 06/02/2011

    I know I should have started it immediately 🙂 At that time the book was not available in the bookstore I frequent and when it arrived, I got distracted by something else. I will get started on it soon 🙂

  19. […] Steph@Steph & Tony Investigate: All to say that I find Scarlett Thomas’s brain incredibly sexy and am now obsessed with collecting her books and casually web stalking her. Rate this: Share this:EmailTwitterFacebookPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  20. […] Steph’s Review – “Most of the objects of my Sapphic affection tend to be these really brilliant brainy ladies (who have kick-ass senses of humor), so it should come as no surprise that I am now inducting Scarlett Thomas into my club of “Women I Would Go Gay For”…I really love the way Thomas infuses her novels with philosophy and physics…, how she isn’t afraid to tackle big questions and intellectually demanding concepts. In this book there was this whole discussion on the concept of multiple universes and how it relates to the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics that kind of just blew my mind in the very best possible way. It is really gratifying to find an author who is not only convinced that her readers are capable of intense thought and contemplation but practically demands that of them.” […]

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