Saturday, June 5, 2010

Another Lucy joins the sisterhood of primates

by Laurence Gonzales

Laurence Gonzales has a terrific high-concept hook with his latest novel, Lucy. It's the story of a teenage girl who is actually an engineered human-bonobo hybrid. (For those who don't know, the bonobos are a species of great ape, formerly known as Pygmy chimpanzees.) The novel opens with a bang in the jungles of the Congo. The feared civil war has broken out, and primatologist Jenny Lowe is running for her life. She needs to make it to the river, but she swings by a British rival's camp along the way to see if she can urge him to join her in flight. She's too late. The soldiers have come and gone. The only person she finds alive is her colleague's fourteen-year-old daughter, naked and in shock. Jenny grabs the girl and they race for the river.

A friend in the British Embassy helps get them out of Congo and back to London. Along the way, Lucy has begun to recover, and is just beginning to show what an extraordinary young lady she is. Jenny and her diplomat friend want to find relatives on Lucy's mother's side that can take the girl in, but until they can be found, Jenny decides to bring Lucy back to Chicago with her. She can't help but feel responsible for this orphan she has saved.

The only other things Jenny dragged from the jungle were the research notebooks of Lucy's slaughtered father. Back at home, when she finally sits down to read them, she learns Lucy's shattering secret. What, she fears, will happen to Lucy if others learn? Of course, they'll learn. D'uh. They always learn.

I waffled over whether to award this novel three or four stars. Ultimately, in a fit of kindness (because I've been kind of grumpy lately), I decided to be generous. This was a light, quick book that I enjoyed reading. My biggest complaint is this: the story-telling could not have been more conventional. Not a thing happened in this book that surprised me. Events were telegraphed well in advance, but even aside from that, the characters and plot were just so darn formulaic. I feel that Gonzales took the easy way out--and perhaps this will prove to be the recipe for a huge, mainstream crowd-pleaser. I'll be shocked if it isn't optioned for film.

Criticisms aside, I did enjoy reading this. It was a light diversion, and I've got a thing for primates. While Lucy's father proclaims in the text, "I named you Lucy not, as some might think, because of the australopithecine of the same name..." I'll admit it; I did and still do think that. But there's another Lucy as well. In the 1960's and '70's, Lucy Temerlin was a chimpanzee raised in a family as a human child resulting in the 1976 book, Lucy: Growing Up Human: A Chimpanzee Daughter in a Psychotherapist's Family. So here we have one more Lucy joining the sisterhood of primates. Laurence Gonzales has given us a fairly conventional telling of this story. But it's still an eternally fascinating story.
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