Book review: Lucy by Lawrence Gonzales

4 Aug

I finished Lucy by Lawrence Gonzales in less than two days.

While that sentence is usually a promising beginning to any review, I can’t say that will be the case with this one.

Jenny Lowe, a primatologist studying bonobos in the Congo, awakens one night to the realization that the civil war in the Republic has finally reached the deeper recesses of the jungle. She flees her camp, stopping just long enough at the research station of fellow scientist Stone, where she finds everyone dead except a naked teenage girl – Stone’s daughter, Lucy. The two women escape with their lives and an armful of Stone’s field notebooks, and with only minimal legal wrangling, land in Chicago a short time later.

Jenny, of course, intends to find Lucy’s relatives in England right away, but she is distracted by the girl’s strange behavior. Chalking it up to Lucy’s growth and development in the jungle, the trauma of losing her father to insurgent violence, and the exhaustion they both feel, Jenny ignores her sense that something is not quite right about Lucy and instead curls up with Stone’s notebooks. And everything suddenly becomes clear.

Lucy acts oddly because she is the first human-bonobo hybrid in his existence. Stone, who used his own sperm to inseminate a bonobo named Leda, created her as part of a vision that she would be a “universal Eve” for a new race of people, one which would have the best qualities of bonobo genetics but also possess the power of language and human thought. Though Lucy refers to herself only once as a “humanzee,” this is indeed what she is.

The story that follows unfolds with speed and intensity: Lucy learns to be an American teenager despite everyone’s suspicions that there is something disturbingly different about her, but on a trip to the Boundary Waters, she falls ill with a disease only found in animals. Cue deleted scenes from “Outbreak.”

To go further into the plot would be to divulge the more gripping parts of the novel, and also the parts that failed. To his credit, Lawrence has managed to raise tremendous and fascinating moral, ethical, and philosophical questions within a narrative that flows quite effortlessly. I really did read this in less than two days, and not for your sakes, trust me.

Where Lawrence stumbles is in glossing over the plausibility of Lucy’s existence; the authenticity of Lucy and her best friend’s quasi-sexual closeness; and the full scope of the media, government, and military frenzy that descends on Lucy when her secret is discovered. Michiko Kakutani’s criticism that “the reader often has the sense that Mr. Gonzales is impatiently ticking off plot points on an outline, as if he were writing a movie treatment, not a novel,” is, unfortunately, spot-on.

That said, this book was not a disappointment. What I picked up expecting to put down 30 pages later was a much-needed surprise, and one I considered staying up very late for.

As an endorsement for a book, even one with major flaws, I’m not sure it gets better than that.

* * * * * * * *

This book was published by Knopf in July 2010. For more information, visit the author’s website. If you’d like to purchase this book, why not support independent booksellers? Follow the link below, and happy reading.

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FTC Disclosure: This review was based on a copy of this book I borrowed from the public library.


2 Responses to “Book review: Lucy by Lawrence Gonzales”

  1. Camille August 6, 2010 at 7:58 am #

    Yup, I’ll definitely put myself on the list at the library for this one.

  2. Marie August 10, 2010 at 10:31 am #

    I love your blog, Sarah! Yay!

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