In reading this book, I learned more than I ever dreamed I’d want to know about several subjects: soap-making, and the chemical evolution of cleaning products of every kind; the history of marketing; the moment-by-moment reality of chemotherapy; the history of the financial markets in America since their conception; an awful lot about cancer and what causes it and how it takes hold; and a whole lot of other stuff that now escapes me. Such erudition! I am stunned, impressed, and educated.
This book alternates between two stories. The first is that of the Clare family: Three brothers start a candle and soap company in mid-19th century Boston. Their little experiment evolves into a multi-national chemical company, with various Clares and others paving history with processes both chemical and financial. Along the way they play an integral part in developing the concept of modern marketing.
The parallel story is of Laura Brody, mild-mannered real estate agent in Lacewood, IL, home of Clare International HQ. Laura has moved past her divorce and is managing her teen aged kids, ex-husband and new career admirably. Her story gives a personal face to the unintended consequences of industry and supposed progress.
The incredible thing about this book? It was fascinating. I don’t read much non-fiction; I need a story to make facts interesting. I quite willingly devoured pages of chemistry, economic theory and history in this novel, and never got bored. Richard Powers has the rare ability to transmit his passion for science through language, and to make any subject he tackles interesting. I’m willing to bet that he’s not only the smartest guy in any room he inhabits, but also has a better understanding of art, and its intersection with both physical and social science. This is, after all, the basis of humanity, but most of us don’t embody it as fully as Powers.