(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The one hundred seventy year history of the fictional Clare Soap and Chemical Company is an American success story that author Richard Powers elaborates in remarkably accurate detail in his continued quest to understand the origins of post-modern American society. With the careful detail he used to explore the mass production of automobiles in THREE FARMERS ON THEIR WAY TO A DANCE (1985), medical developments in PRISONER’S DILEMMA (1988) and OPERATION WANDERING SOUL (1993), and the computer revolution in GALATEA 2.2 (1995), Powers traces the growth of a family-operated company through its expansion and eventual incorporation to the point that its wastes poison the environs surrounding its plants.

The subplot of this multiplot novel concerns Laura Bodey, a single mother, a fortyish real estate agent, who develops ovarian cancer traceable to Clare Company pollutants that seep into the streams and soil of Lacewood, Illinois, her home. The Clares, who founded the company, are not villains, nor are the subsequent corporate executives who transformed Clare into a thriving multiproduct enterprise. Yet as the company grows, sinister health implications of its growth escape those whose chief concern is with expansion.

Laura Bodey’s story alternates with the intricate history of the Clare Soap and Chemical Company, with its growth from a small New England factory to an industrial behemoth. The ultimate irony is that Clare, a company that revels in good works and in community responsibility, unwittingly poisons the areas whose economies it has created and supports.

Sources for Further Study

Business Week. July 27, 1998, p. 12.

Library Journal. CXXIII, May 1, 1998, p. 140.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 21, 1998, p. 2.

The Nation. CCLXVII, July 27, 1998, p. 33.

The New Leader. LXXIV, June 29, 1998, p. 26.

The New York Review of Books. XLV, December 17, 1998, p. 38.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, June 21, 1998, p. 11.

The New Yorker. LXXIV, July 27, 1998, p. 76.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, April 13, 1998, p. 50.

The Wall Street Journal. July 1, 1998, p. A16.