Sunday, February 26, 2012

Lucy, by Laurence Gonzales.  Vintage Books, 2011.  307 pp.  978-0-307-4890-5.

... in which Lucy, a the product of a science experiment with breeding humans and bonobos together, teaches the world what it means to be human.

Lucy opens in the Congo, where primatologist Jenny Lowe is studying bonobos (a cousin of the chimpanzee, and one of humanity's closest relatives).  When Jenny is forced to flee from the Congo as the civil war reaches her study site in the jungle, she finds that another primate researcher has been murdered.  Her colleague leaves behind a 14-year-old daughter, Lucy, and Jenny feels obligated to take Lucy with her as she flees the country.  Jenny takes Lucy to Chicago with her, and when it becomes clear that Lucy has no living family, Jenny adopts her as her own daughter.  When reading through Lucy's father's notes, it becomes clear that Lucy is the product of a strange experiment: she is half human, half bonobo.  Because Lucy appears to be completely human, and is more intelligent and articulate than most humans, Jenny tries to enroll her in school.  As Lucy begins to settle in to her new life, her secret inevitably gets out, and Lucy becomes an overnight celebrity.  Lucy's new public presence sparks a debate about what it means to be human, and could threaten her life and the lives of everyone she loves.

I'll start out with the science question.  A fair number of other reviews of this book complain about the implausibility of creating a viable child using human sperm and a bonobo ovum (artificial insemination... the author works hard to make this part as scientific and not-gross as possible).  I don't know a lot about genetics and biology, but I do know that bonobos and chimps are our closest relatives among the apes, so it didn't seem entirely absurd to me.  Also, I do know that there aren't giant space worms that poop out magic stuff that helps space-people navigate across the cosmos, and I know that you can't create a dinosaur from a fossilized mosquito, and I know that the Earth is not going to be destroyed to make way for an inter-stellar bypass, but these things did not stop me from enjoying any of those books, so... whatever. 

In Lucy, Laurence Gonzales has written the sort of book where the reader is compelled to read it until the end, in one single sitting.  The main characters are all so sympathetic that it's impossible to put the book down.  That is probably the biggest strength of this book; it's impossible for the reader to stop rooting for Lucy, and the other main characters are all likeable enough in their own right to bring out even more of the reader's concern.  Lucy herself is undeniably a person, despite her unusual genealogy, and Gonzales goes out of his way to present her as an otherwise normal teenage girl, who just want to fit in and make friends. The intense likability of the characters really adds to the emotional impact of the book.

Lucy is also undeniably a book with a Point: the question "what is a human?" never leaves the reader's mind, and immediately after Lucy goes public with her story, we immediately get the inevitable wave of extremists who want Lucy immediately killed for being an abomination against Christ.  The comparisons between so-called "human" behavior with the behavior of bonobos and chimpanzees are also frequent.  Lucy herself points out several times that she did not ask to be made, she did not ask to be different, so why does this mean that she gets different/fewer rights from the "real" humans?  These kinds of questions are likely to invoke a strong reaction in a lot of readers, so this book is bound to be a very affecting book (regardless of where you fall on the question of Lucy's humanity).  It is definitely a thought-provoking book, with enough humor and drama and action thrown in to keep it interesting and engaging. 

I have two complaints about Lucy.  My first complaint is that the pacing of the book is very uneven.  Only 20 pages in, and Lucy and Jenny have already survived the Congalese civil war and have arrived at Jenny's house in suburban Chicago.  We spend a long time learning about Lucy's first few days in Chicago (also her first days away from the remote jungle), but nearly the entirety of Lucy's first year of high school passes in a few pages.  In an interview, the author said that this book initially started out as a screenplay, which is very clear in the book's pacing.  It's very well set up for scene breaks and the dialog and speeches are short and eloquent, making them perfect for the screen.  Unfortunately as a reader, I would have liked to have about 200 more pages in the book.

My second (larger) complaint is that this book is somewhat lacking in subtlety.  This might be partially due to the book's short length, but the book's characters and the book's message are both very straightforward.  The immediate likability of Lucy, Jenny, and their friends works well while the reader is still reading the book, but after finishing it, the characters sort of look a little too perfect, in retrospect.  None of Lucy's immediate friends react at all badly to finding out that she's half bonobo.  I don't know about anyone else, but I am pretty sure I'd have at least a brief moment of shocked horror upon finding out that one of my best friends was half ape.  I like to think I'd get over it, but I'm not sure I'd be so immediately accepting of it as everyone around Lucy.  This could be because Lucy is so freaking lovable... she looks human, she's sweet, she's amazingly intelligent, so how could anyone not immediately accept her?  Gonzales also beats us over the head with Lucy's humanity... her socializing with her peers, her love of Shakespeare, etc.  Lucy's animal traits are also pretty much as ideal as possible... she's not at all savage, and her most animal-like traits are her superior strength and agility, her superior senses, and her ability to communicate with animals.  Of course, there's also the villains... the obvious senator who writes a bill to define Lucy as an animal, or the Christian fundamentalists who want Lucy immediately destroyed because she's an abomination and not a person.  I would complain that these characters are far too much like cartoonish caricatures, but the truth is, they do a pretty good job of making themselves seem like cartoonish caricatures in real life.  Still, it would have been nice to see more bad guys with some more nuance.

This is not to say that the book is flat... not at all.  It's a very engaging read, and it left me with a lot to think about.  It's an emotionally profound book, that will make most readers feel the characters' joy and fear and sorrow very acutely.  There are plenty of moments of interesting insight, like when Lucy looks at a researcher and thinks "she was looking at the bland, indifferent, earnest face of true evil" (240).  I'm sure the author would have a lot of interesting things to say about civil rights issues involving transgender people, or any other people who were born different and have had their civil rights diminished for it.

I would recommend this book to people who enjoy Crichton-esque books, or anyone with an interest in civil rights in America, or anyone who enjoys books like Frankenstein.  I might not recommend this book to anyone who's a religious fundamentalist... it might offend them.  But, then again, they might learn something from it... so, yeah, recommended for anyone who doesn't require their books to be subtle and nuanced, but enjoy a good thought-provoking story with a moral behind it.

4/5 stars

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