This reading group guide for Chemistry for Beginners includes discussion questions and a Q&A with author Anthony Strong. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. For Discussion
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1. Did you expect Susan, Heather, or Richard’s betrayals? How did you react to the discovery of their ulterior motives?
2. Discuss the many sexual relationships in the book (Richard and Annie, Wulf and Rhona, Annie and Simon, Steven and Annie, Susan and Heather). Were they all dysfunctional? How did sex affect their work environment? Similarly, discuss the romantic relationships throughout the story (Annie and Simon, Steven and Annie, Julian and Heather). Were any of them what they seemed?
3. How did the inclusion of Miss G.’s blog help to frame the story? Did hearing directly from her enlighten you and add to the story, or could you already adequately determine her perspective from the main narrative?
4. Richard Collins states, “For every action there is a chemical reaction” (page 33). Discuss the cause and effect of a few actions (and subsequent reactions) within the story. Consider the revelation of Susan’s diary, Steven and Annie’s awkward dates, and the slow unraveling of the KXC79 project.
5. In Section 47.8, Rhona asks, “But isn’t that what science is, really? Just a series of hopeless failures, and the occasional chance to learn from them?” (page 310). Do you agree with this sentiment? Does it hold true for more than just science?
6. Why do you feel that Steven repressed his feelings for so long? Does science get in the way of emotion?
7. Do you consider FSD a problem to be solved or an evolutionary message?
8. Were you surprised by Steven and Annie’s reconnection in the Congo? Discuss their jungle consummation.
9. Is Annie a true scientist by the story’s end?
10. How did you perceive the role of fantasy throughout the story? (From sexual imaginings to the dragons and battles in Swamps and Sorcerers). Which do you find more fun? A Conversation with Anthony Strong Some of the scientific theories in the book are incredibly complex. Do you have a background in biochemistry or any other area of science?
Sadly, no. When I had this idea—and I originally thought of it as a short story, or possibly a novella—I was a complete ignoramus about science. But I have a child who has an unusual medical condition, and in the course of trying to research possible treatments for it I struggled through a vast number of scientific papers with the aid of a science dictionary. I was struck by the way they’re written, which of course is usually very dispassionate, but sometimes you get these little glimpses of passion or excitement. . . . Somehow the idea of writing a love story about a scientist kept growing, and then finally I had the thought of writing my whole story as a paper. After that Steven’s voice just appeared on the page, and before I knew it I had fifty thousand words, then eighty thousand. . . . But doing the research was incredibly hard, particularly as I set myself the goal of getting the science 99.9 percent right—the missing 0.1 percent being where I deliberately distort it for comic effect. So almost all of the science papers I reference, for example, are genuine— you really can go online and look up peer-reviewed papers about neurotransmitter cascade in the orgasm of the female bonobo, or whatever. As a literary writer, do you think that there’s merit in a scientific approach to poetry?
I think there’s much more merit in a poetic approach to science. Albert Einstein once said: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” That seems to me to be very close to a poet’s view of the world. And of course, however logical scientists try to make their discoveries seem, really great science—the science of an Einstein or a Newton—is about genius, insight, and inspiration. Scientists are actually the most passionate of men: they just have to hide it behind the language of academia. Is Steven meant to be as romantically naïve as he seems? Does science interfere with love on a basic level?
Well, love is science. And at the moment, with all these popular evolutionary thinkers around, there are plenty of people who explain things like love only in terms of science. I wanted to show that there’s an opposite point of view—that we’re much more than the sum of our evolutionary influences: that chemistry is as important as biology.
In a way, I’m not sure Steven is naïve. Repressed, yes, blinkered, self-deceiving . . . but it’s almost as if he knows too much rather than too little. I have to say, I like him. But then, I’m probably quite similar to him. What made you decide to include varying narrative formats, such as Annie’s blog and the editorial bit at the end of Steven’s “paper”?
Originally, it was just for the plot—the little revelations that need to be explained somehow. But as I developed those bits, and particularly Annie’s blog, I was struck by the way that having more than one perspective on an event goes right to the heart of what the book’s about—that truth is more complex than science sometimes acknowledges, particularly when it comes to the different ways men and women view sex. And it allowed me to break up Steven’s scientific language with something a bit more immediate. It’s easier to root for Annie if you’ve been inside her head. Why do you think Steven is able to keep his composure after the discovery of his colleague’s duplicity?
Well, he does throw up! But of course the fact that the pills are placebos neatly solves the problem of Annie’s anomalous results. So in a way it’s a big relief for him. Was there a method behind when you referred to Annie by her name or as “Miss G.?”
A little. We get the sense that Steven is using her real name in conversation but not in the paper. Then, at moments of intimacy or crisis, he forgets himself and calls her “Annie.” Have you ever played any game like Swamps and Sorcerers?
Nope—not Dungeons and Dragons, World of Warcraft, or any other fantasy game. But I love the language they use. And I wanted the book to celebrate geeks, not to satirize them. It was very important to me that Annie isn’t just a love object. She’s someone who, at the start of the book, has a real need to find her inner geek, even though she hasn’t realized it herself yet. Her love of Swamps and Sorcerers is just one of the ways that the reader knows before she does that she’s destined to be a scientist. Which definition of “plasm” do you prefer?
Funnily enough, I was never a big fan of Lady Chatterley’s Lover until I reread it on Annie’s behalf. Then I realized what a wonderful, sensual, mystical writer Lawrence is about sex. So I’d probably choose his definition—not that he really defines what plasm is. Are you planning on writing another book? Will science be involved?
Definitely another book—but whether science will be involved I don’t know. It’s all about finding the characters, really. And I like the notion that romantic comedies can be set in quite unusual worlds. So the next one might be another surprise. . . .