The sexual revolution is on the horizon in 1960ís London, a year after the scandal of Chappaquiddick, the birth control pill available to young women, along with the promise of control over oneís body and oneís choices.
Of strict Catholic upbringing, after graduating Holy Redeemer School, Carmel McBain arrives for college in London with some consternation, happy to be delivered into the wider world but unable to afford the luxuries the other students in her dormitory take for granted.
Sharing a room with a former classmate from Holy Redeemer, Julianne Lipcott, the antithesis of her own severely constricted existence at Towbridge Hall, Carmel is delighted to have escaped room assignment with another girl from their former school, the overweight, bumptious Karina.
A burden since her earliest school days, Karina has always lived at the edges of Carmelís consciousness, a clumsy, gluttonous, unattractive girl with a penchant for sarcasm and disdain. Long a favorite of Carmelís mother, only child Carmel has listened to years of unfettered admiration for the hulking Karina, unable to escape an unwelcome intimacy even in London.
Unfortunately, Carmelís body pays the price of her familyís financial constraints; unable to afford any extras, she gradually reduces the amount she eats, meager at best in the common dining hall. Abundance in any form is not in her lexicon. Barely aware of her descent, Carmel slips into the netherworld of anorexia, self-denial a common condition.
Julianne and Carmel are polar opposites, Julianne urbane and sophisticated, disdainful of the petty problems of those around her. Carmel begins to see her roommate as one who observes the travails of the others so that she will not have to endure the painful experiences herself; hence the title, Julianneís implied ďexperiment in love.Ē
Karina is a larger threat to Carmelís daily existence. Forever expanding, Karina seems to enlarge at Carmelís expense, both figuratively and literally: the anorexic Carmel is disappearing.
Confronted by the ease of sexual relations and the burdens entailed, Carmel fails to achieve the abundant freedom of her roommate, emotionally vulnerable to the vagaries of first love, driven to excel while plagued with self-doubt. Her frail psyche assaulted by the experience of first love and loss, Carmel floats through her days at Towbridge Hall, rigorously studying, tediously starving.
Mantel mines the deep contradictions of Carmelís past. In spite of her slight frame, Carmel glows with a vital spirit; Julia recedes like a pale moon, Karina finally exorcised by a tragic incident that frees Carmel from the weight of the past.
Mantelís prose is luminous, revisiting the sexual revolution, an awakening of female consciousness and Carmelís release into a wider world: ďThe little women inside were looking out through our eyes and waving to the world.Ē