My rating: 4 of 5 stars
(I don't usually put spoilers on these, but this one is justified in having a spoiler warning, I think.
This book inspired a reaction I don't think I've ever had before: a compelling read that I didn't want to put down....and I don't think I'll ever read again.
This is not an easy read by any means. It's a little bit psychological thriller, an exploration of gaslighting and domestic violence and how it's handed down from generation to generation, a discussion of the scientific ethics of personhood, the unpacking of the unfair expectations society puts on professional women/wives, and the extrapolation of the full-fledged societal upheavals viable cloning would bring. It's a heady stew, wrapped around one of the most obsessed, unlikeable, and fascinating protagonists I've ever read. Not that protagonists need to be likable, of course. This one definitely isn't, but she commands the story on every page, down to the shiver-inducing ending.
The tone is set from the very first paragraph.
My gown was beautiful. It was the kind of garment that looks precisely as expensive as it is. I did not hate it, because it was beautiful, and I did not love it, because it was cruel. I wore it because wearing it was the thing this night demanded of me.
As I read the first few pages, I thought, "This person is wound so tightly she's about to break." Sometimes I wondered which of the characters would break first: Evelyn Caldwell, the narrator, who discovers her husband has been having an affair with Evelyn's own clone, Martine; Martine, the woman created to be the perfect version of a wife, the wife Evelyn could not be; and Nathan, Evelyn's husband, the epitome of restrained, toxic masculinity that created and murdered twelve other versions of Martine before coming up with the ideal, pliant, agreeable clone of Evelyn that wanted nothing more than to stay at home, be a mother, and tend to Nathan's every need.
I suppose Nathan was the character who broke first, after Martine spoke up to him for the first time, asking him what would happen if she didn't want to be a mother. (She has just discovered she's pregnant, which is the incident that sets the entire plot in motion. Evelyn didn't create her clones to be fertile; they're just intended to be temporary, disposable things, serving their purpose and then terminated.) Nathan flies into a rage and tries to strangle Martine; she kills him in self-defense and calls Evelyn in a panic. Evelyn comes over, and realizing she has to hide both Nathan's death and Martine's existence to save her career, helps Martine bury the body in the back yard.
(Gardens and back yards play a large part in this story; as the slow, restrained horror of Evelyn's childhood unfolds, the reader learns the full meaning of the William Faulkner quote, which is terrifyingly apropos to this story: "The past is never dead. It's not even past. All of us labor in webs spun long before we were born, webs of heredity and environment, of desire and consequence, of history and eternity." Returning to the theme of generational abuse, Evelyn's father was also an abuser and manipulator who beat his wife, terrorized the household, broke his daughter's wrist and was subsequently killed by Evelyn's mother and buried in her mother's garden. Evelyn is never able to leave the ghost of her father behind, which ties into the unsettling ending, where she's living with Martine and Martine's daughter, Violet. She may not be physically abusing Martine, at least not yet, but she's sounding more and more like her father every day. It's one of the creepiest endings I've read in a long time.)
From that point on, the angry, obsessed wife and the naive young lover are caught up in a tangled web they are never able to free themselves from. Evelyn makes a few brief attempts to develop a conscience and ultimately backs away from doing so; Martine tries to break out of her programming and in the end gives in to it for the sake of her daughter; and the clone of Nathan, which Evelyn and Martine create to hide the original's death, cannot cope with the thing he thought he wanted, a baby, and dumps the child on Evelyn (and Martine, who he thinks is dead and doesn't know is living with his ex-wife). These are three fucked-up people....but you can't look away from them.
(I can't imagine what that household will be like as Violet gets older. I hope Sarah Gailey doesn't ever write a sequel to this book, because I doubt I would be able to bring myself to read it.)
It takes real skill to write such a dark, twisted story as this, and make it so readable and compelling. For the most part, the writing is low-key and restrained, which makes for an even harder gut punch. It requires a great deal of intestinal fortitude from the reader...but if you can cope with it, it's a helluva story.