Mary Shelley began writing FRANKENSTEIN; OR, THE MODERN PROMETHEUS,
she had already lost her mother (who died shortly after she was
born) and two of her own children. She was not yet 20 years old.
Her gothic novel deals with the responsibility of creators for
their creations and the hubris of over-ambitious scientists. Since
its publication in 1818, it has spawned a number of knock-off
stories, not to mention numerous Hollywood horror flicks.
First-time novelist Camille DeAngelis has taken up Shelley's story
in a manner Shelley would approve of: with an emphasis on the
dangers of irresponsible science, the power of motherhood and the
psychological and spiritual identity of living (read: created)
individuals. MARY MODERN also throws in just enough spooky details
to make it almost as dark as Shelley's original.
MARY MODERN is set in the present day in an east coast college
town, although we do take a few brief trips to the past. Our
Frankenstein is Lucy Morrigan, a scientist working on stem cell
research at the university's secretive lab as well as in her own
basement. She lives with her strangely passive boyfriend, a
professor of Greek language and literature, and an odd cult of five
young men --- students at the college who have vowed celibacy. The
house the seven share has been in Lucy's family for generations and
in fact has changed little from the turn of the century. Each
new generation has added only a few pieces of furniture and some
photographs to the walls. The place is dusty, musty and spooky,
complete with secret passageways. But in the basement is the
high-tech lab Lucy's father worked in as he tried to unlock the
secrets of life itself.
Like her father, Lucy is something of an eccentric and obsessive
genius. When she starts thinking about having children with her
boyfriend, Gray, those traits carry over into her family planning.
Unable to conceive, she decides instead to clone her grandmother,
Mary, implant and then carry the embryo, raising the baby girl as
her own daughter. Gray is doubtful but goes along with the plan.
Assisted by Lucy's friend Megan, Lucy impregnates herself with a
clone of her own grandmother.
Lucy soon begins to pay the price for her baby lust, as just three
months into the pregnancy it is obvious that something is wrong.
Before she knows it, "Mary" is born --- a 22-year-old woman with
all the memories the original Mary had at that age. With
delicacy and without preaching, DeAngelis explores the ethical
ramifications of the situation that ensues. This new Mary is (as
Vonnegut described Billy Pilgrim) unstuck in time. She has woken up
in the house she knows but in a world that is unfamiliar.
While DeAngelis's thesis is based on Shelley's plot, the vehicle
for it is unique and compelling. However, her characters are not
always well fleshed out, even when they are well conceived. What
would motivate Gray, for example, to stick with the obviously crazy
Lucy, even though they freely admit they are not in love? DeAngelis
gives us no clue. How could Mary adjust to her new life (which she
is told repeatedly has very little to do with that of the "real" or
original Mary who was Lucy's grandmother) without losing her mind
completely? DeAngelis smooths over this question as well. MARY
MODERN is concerned mostly with the big picture, as well as the
smallest details, and the character development often
Still, the ideas here are interesting and there are some good
twists and turns in the plot. This is the type of book that lends
itself to book club discussions because it touches on so many
important contemporary issues (cloning, biogenetics, fertility
treatments) as well as age-old ones (identity, freedom, personal
expression, religion, the meaning of love). MARY MODERN is an
ambitious first novel from an author who seems to understand both
literary history and the contemporary trend of cross-genre
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 7, 2011
- Publication Date: July 9, 2007
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 368 pages
- Publisher: Crown
- ISBN-10: 0307352587
- ISBN-13: 9780307352583