Book review: The Colony by Jillian Weise

18 Aug

Reader, I had to mine my Gmail archives from two months ago to find the exact nuances of my hatred for The Colony by Jillian Weise.

My dear friend, a fabulous author, knew how excited I was to read this novel. I first heard about it on twitter, and the premise fascinated me: Anne Hatley, a native of North Carolina with some rather caustic personality traits, was born with genetic mutation that gave her only one leg. In 2015, at age 25, Anne attempts to take a mental leave of absence from the hefty chip on her shoulder and a fiancé who drives her the bad kind of crazy by participating in cutting-edge medical research at a lab on Long Island. She lives for several months with four other people who also possess genetic deficiencies. In a surprise twist of cookie-cutter expectations, hilarity does not ensue.

So, like the kind and thoughtful person my dear author friend is, she sent me the galley her publisher had sent to her. I started it a few days after it arrived with only the highest of high hopes, because I am nothing if not a little old ant who thinks she’ll move a rubber tree plant. (Please note: my deep cynicism forces me to admit the previous statement is wholly untrue.)

I’ve included the full, unabridged text of my email response to my dear author friend below. I did modify two or three or seventeen all-caps sentences, for calmness’ sake:

“I forced myself to get to page 122, because this is a book you sent me, and because I want to give you a fair assessment:

1. I hate the narrator. I hate, hate, hate her. She’s annoying, vulgar, and completely unlikable.

2. I almost threw the book against the wall when Weise was describing Nick, the character from Wisconsin. If she meant to portray a stereotypical farmer, there is a difference between a cowboy and a farmer and I swear to god, I am actually offended. Wisconsin is not (entirely) some backwards hick-ass place. Weise is from Houston, so she must think Texas = Wisconsin but I tell you, it. does. not. If you don’t know my state, don’t for god’s bloody sakes write about it. Wisconsin is John Deere and Case IH and Carhartt, and cowboys have nothing to do with milk cows, and my god, should I go on?

3. The “genetic mutation story” seems to be totally underdeveloped – like it’s a backdrop for the greater pseudo-drama of this screwed-up character, and her dealings with everyone else in the colony. I was excited because I thought this was a fantasy-science story, but it’s not. It’s just this grating-ass woman with no morals who clearly has bigger emotional issues than her computerized leg.

I haven’t decided whether or not I’m going to finish it. It makes me so mad I almost want to see how it ends.”

But I stopped reading it, because I don’t need more rage. And because it doesn’t get much more eloquent than “grating-ass,” you know?

Except I kept thinking about this book. And I don’t mean I remembered it when I was reading an article online about Mendelism and quantitative traits, because I totally do that all the time. I kept coming back to the idea of scientific advancement, of metaphorical  – but also increasingly literal – leaps and bounds.

I’m more of a biochemistry girl myself, which is to say, I spend more time than your average wonk thinking about how my brain is working, or rather, not. But this book got me thinking about the human genome, and the scope of science, and what will happen when we inevitably reach the point where we can grow limbs for people who are missing them, or alter their genes so they won’t commit suicide, or mess with their molecules to keep them from getting obese.

Toward the end of the novel, Anne suggests that what the Colony is doing to her and the other patients is tantamount to eugenics, and it is. I still disliked her – she was still the same crass, emotionally stunted character from page 1 – but Weise suddenly did a much better job delving into the psychology of Anne’s situation. At the same time I started seriously contemplating the consequences of scientific “progress,” I started seeing Anne for the lost, anguished woman she is.

Weise can write a clever scene – Anne strikes up a close and honest friendship with the presumably resurrected Charles Darwin, and they have a memorable dinner together at Applebee’s, for instance – but my email to my dear author friend is still a pretty succinct round up of how I feel about The Colony. Weise got the character from Wisconsin and the little details about Madison unforgivably wrong, and probably more importantly to you, she takes far too long to get to her big, meaty ideas. Yet, as a reviewer from The Faster Times succinctly put it, “the book won’t be done with you even though you might want to be done with the book.”

The Colony wouldn’t be done with me, and in the end, I’m glad for that. I appreciate the questions this novel raised in my mind. Even – perhaps especially – the unanswerable ones.

* * * * * * * *

This book was published by Soft Skull Press in February 2010. 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 galley copy I received from a friend, who received it from the publisher.

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4 Responses to “Book review: The Colony by Jillian Weise”

  1. Fran August 19, 2010 at 8:09 am #

    I shall postpone starting this book because I have enough things that haunt me. Thanks for the preliminary (e-mail) and final review. I am glad you finished the book and found it insightful. I’ll just skip to musings on the scientific possibilities.

  2. Gypsy August 30, 2010 at 8:01 am #

    Yeah, I’m not gonna read this one. However, reading your review did remind me of this lady: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/aimee_mullins_prosthetic_aesthetics.html

    • The Poetry Police September 27, 2010 at 7:49 pm #

      What a snarky review! For the flip side, see the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s review: http://www.ajc.com/lifestyle/colony-a-first-novel-444326.html. For the sake of full disclosure, Jillian is a friend of ours, so of course we’re biased and think her work is the bomb. Does Aimee Mullins write novels?

      • Sarah September 27, 2010 at 7:54 pm #

        So…is snarky a bad thing, then?

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