Monday, October 27, 2008

DeAngelis' Mary Modern

Three Rivers Press, c2008.

I wasn't sure I could count this one toward my RIP Challenge total, but then I discovered that Carl himself had read it last year! Furthermore, Lesley has just read and reviewed it for this year's RIP -- and now so have I!

I agree with both of them; this was an unusual, suspenseful, intriguing read. I really enjoyed it, more than I'd first expected to. I picked it up as it came across my desk in this new paperback edition. The description on the back cover is this:

Lucy Morrigan, a young genetic researcher, lives with her boyfriend, Gray, and a strange collection of tenants in her crumbling family mansion. Surrounded by four generations of clothes, photographs, furniture, and other remnants of past lives, Lucy and Gray's home life is strangely out of touch with the modern world--except for Lucy's high-tech lab in the basement.

Frustrated by her unsuccessful attempts to attain motherhood or tenure, Lucy takes drastic measures to achieve both. Using a blood-stained scrap of an apron found in the attic, Lucy successfully clones her grandmother, Mary. But rather than conjuring a new baby, Lucy brings to life a twenty-two-year-old Mary, who is confused and disoriented when she finds herself trapped in the strangest sort of déjà-vu: alive in a home that is no longer her own, surrounded by reminders of a life she has already lived but doesn't remember.

The story is propelled by a creepy, foreboding atmosphere; you just know everything's going to go wrong, or at least not as expected by Lucy. Her family home, a huge crumbling mass which she lives in mostly alone, only with very odd boarders and then finally her boyfriend Gray, is the perfect Gothic setting. Its decrepitude reflects Lucy's own, as her obsession with both her family history and the idea of having her own child grows, resulting in increasingly antisocial and frankly strange behaviour. One of the strong points of the novel is the development of Lucy, Gray, and Mary's characters; the others, friends and boarders alike, are a little interchangeable at times.

An element I really liked was the twist at the end. Quite often, when a major piece of information is held back until the end, it doesn't really make a lot of sense when you look back at the whole novel. (ie: as in The Lace Reader). In this book, once you've read the final pages, you realize how everything had been leading up to this disclosure, and it actually explains and clarifies situations and characters, which to me signals a useful plot twist rather than one which is solely an authorial intervention, a way to tie up loose plot strands.

There were a couple of odd inclusions to this novel, however. As Carl mentioned, included are excerpts of a book called Everyday Life in the Twenty-first Century. While I can see how this is a useful device to orient Mary to her new life, reducing the need for repeated stumblings over cultural changes, it doesn't really work. The tone of those excerpts clashes with the spell she's casting throughout the rest of the book. They rely heavily on social criticism of the Bush government, and are far too topical and pointed to really be helpful. While I don't disagree with much of what she says in those sections, they were jarring, and I think they will date the book quickly. They bring a reader's focus onto current news headlines, while the rest of the story does not quite feel like this morning's world. The character who is supposed to have written these is an intriguing creation, but again, I wasn't quite sure what part he was supposed to play. He is a bona fide time traveller, while Mary is only one by default, being a clone brought to life in the wrong decade.

However, this is not meant to explicate scientific principles of cloning or to delve too deeply into actual scientific possibilities. It is a meditation on what it means to be an individual, an original, and where such an individual fits in a family or in a wider society. You could also consider it an inquiry into the old question of "nature vs. nurture" -- will the cloned individual follow the same path as its source? Finally, you might also see it as an examination of the lengths that desire will force a person to, whether through religious, familial, sexual, or maternal desire. It's an atmospheric, thought-provoking read which I can recommend to fans of both speculative fiction and more relationship driven fiction.


  1. I really liked Mary Modern and would like to re-read it someday.

  2. That's too bad about the topical bits. It's always slightly disappointing to realize how quickly a book will become dated. But it sounds very much worth reading regardless!

  3. I started it and didn't get very far in. I think the bits you mentioned as distracting will bother me, but I think I'll take another stab at it soon, anyway. I really want to like it!

  4. I really liked this book, too. Anything that speaks to genetic issues is on my TBR pile. Glad to see this is now in paperback, too!

  5. Hmmm, intriguing - it doesn't sound like I'll go out of my way to buy this, but it certainly sounds worth lloking out for in the library.

  6. I wholeheartedly agree with you on your comments about the 21st Century book, and yes, while the author of that book was intriguing, felt out of place within the context of this novel.

    Glad you enjoyed the book, too!


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