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Monday, July 23, 2007

"Mary Modern" by Camille DeAngelis

Read the Prologue HERE

For a while now, Camille DeAngelis’Mary Modern” has been on my radar and I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into the copy that was so graciously provided by Shaye Areheart Books who released the novel on July 10, 2007. While “Mary Modern” is an impressively ambitious first offering, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another critically-acclaimed debut—Rebecca Stott’sGhostwalk”—that I had mixed feelings about. In plainer terms, I thought “Mary Modern” was both an accomplished debut and a disappointment.

Story-wise, “Mary Modern’s” premise played a large part in what attracted me to the book in the first place. Lucy Morrigan and her boyfriend Gray are incapable of having a child through conventional methods, so Lucy—who happens to be a scientist researching genetics/cloning—decides to try a much more controversial approach. The result is Mary, a 22-year old clone of Lucy’s grandmother who retains the memories of her life up to that point in September 1929 when she inadvertently left a sample of the DNA that made her replication possible. What follows is a series of intriguing dilemmas that include Mary’s assimilation into society in the year 2008/2009; how Mary is able to cope with the loss of all of her immediate family, including a husband that she was newly wedded to and children she never knew; and the guilt Lucy feels over the whole situation and the steps she’ll take to try and make things right…

Obviously, Mary Shelley’sFrankenstein” was a major influence in “Mary Modern”. Not only do the two books explore such similar themes as the ethics of man playing God and the dangers of technological advancements, but the writing has a very gothic romanticist flavor and, like Ms. Shelley in “Frankenstein”, the scientific aspects in “Mary Modern” are skimmed over by the author to focus more on the philosophical/moral viewpoints. However, “Mary Modern" is more than just a modernized retelling of a literary classic.

According to her FAQ, Camille DeAngelis was also influenced by her family’s history, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Kate O’Brien, H.P. Lovecraft, Irish mythology, etc., and she tries to weave a love story, religion and politics into “Mary Modern”. Unfortunately, I didn’t find these subplots to be nearly as effective. Take the romance for instance. The relationship between Lucy & Gray is icy at best, and while I thought Mary & Teddy’s love for one another was well-developed, things get a little bit weird when Gray becomes a third wheel. As far as the religious slant, I thought there was a lot of potential to examine how someone raised under strict Christian beliefs would react to our more liberal society, but the author barely scratches the surface in this area, and instead we get members of the Seventh Order of Saint Agatha—a “male purity movement for the twenty-first century” that practices celibacy—and the fanatical Reverend Charles Fuller. Finally, Ms. DeAngelis created a fictional book called “Everyday Life in the Twenty-First Century: A Handbook for the Chronologically Displaced”, which is excerpted throughout “Mary Modern”. While somewhat interesting—supposedly the author, P.F.X. Godfry, traveled to the future (2008) where he got all of the information on 21st century politics, socioeconomics, etc., for his book which was published in 1958—this device seemed more like an outlet for the author’s political views, rather than having any major relevance on the story. In short, “Mary Modern” works best when it focuses on the main topic at hand—the ethics of cloning, being displaced out of time, Mary’s love for Teddy—and falters a bit when the book tries to branch out onto other tangents.

Of the writing, this was probably what most impressed me about “Mary Modern”. For a debut novel, Camille DeAngelis displayed a strong command of the material and the prose was surprisingly accomplished, led by top-notch descriptive abilities. I did find the pacing to be a bit on the lethargic side though, and the characters—whether it was Mary, Lucy, Gray, Megan (Lucy’s friend & boss), the Reverend or any of the five boarders—seemed detached, almost soulless. So, while the dialogue may have been solid and the personalities defined, it was hard to really understand or care about any of the characters’ intentions. Aside from this, I didn’t really have any other issues. After all, it’s fairly obvious that Ms. DeAngelis is a pretty gifted writer, and while she needs to work on some areas, I’m sure she’ll continue to get better as a novelist.

Overall, “Mary Modern” was a difficult novel for me to review. As I said before, I was really impressed by the writing and I thought Ms. DeAngelis’ take on cloning was quite fascinating & provocative. On the other hand, the book wasn’t really my cup of tea and I just didn’t enjoy reading “Mary Modern” all that much. For all of the sci-fi, fantasy & horror elements in the book, “Mary Modern” doesn’t really fit in any of those categories. So don’t expect very many thrills, chills or senses of wonderment if you decide to tackle “Mary Modern”. Instead, Ms. DeAngelis’ debut is a much more introspective, scholarly reading experience. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against that type of literature and in fact, I think a lot of readers will find “Mary Modern” to be quite thought-provoking. All I’m trying to say is that “Mary Modern” is not going to appeal to everyone and that includes me. That doesn’t mean I can’t recognize a promising new talent when I see one though, and Camille DeAngelis definitely falls under that grouping, so it’s going to be interesting to see what the author comes up with next…

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading this book and was looking for any discussions of it when I found your blog. It seems rather sad to me that you believe the book is flawed simply because it turned out to be different from what you expected. Mary Modern is not a sci-fi novel. It is a literary novel with a few sci-fi elements that are subordinate to the entire point of the book: which is (as I understand it) that love, romantic AND familial love, continues beyond the grave. To that end, the novel is best described as a sort of sentimental gothic. For those of you blog-readers who are still interested in reading this book (and I hope you are, for it is an excellent read), believe me that it is NOT a book that needs to be "tackled." It is a smart read, but a very fast and easy one. You will finish it in two evenings at most. The only thing I agree with in this review is that the author is one to watch.
sincerely,
Maura

Robert said...

Maura:

Thanks for stopping by and for providing your thoughts! Unfortunately, I think you might have misinterpreted my review. I didn't think the book was flawed because it wasn't my cup of tea--I thought it was flawed because the characterization was a bit weak, and there were certain elements that detracted from the main story at hand. Other than that, for the most I thought the concept and the execution were pretty impressive. Still, I stand by my thoughts that "Mary Modern" will only appeal to a certain demographic and that's what I was trying to get across.

So, thanks again and I hope you'll continue visiting the website. Much love & respect.

Anonymous said...

The book uses enough plausible science to fall within the definition of science fiction. There is a plot twist in the end I didn't see coming and forces me, (cheerfully), to go back and re-read. The premise of the book by P.F.X. Godfrey is one I don't get at all and seems to remain unexplained. Perhaps re-reading will clear this up. As for the cloning of Teddy, how can a person be seemingly yanked from the midst of the Battle for Normandy to miraculously emerge in a sleepy college town in the present and not even ask who won? The author does not dwell on this. The author does describe in rich detail using a female perspective the clothing of the characters, the setting, the dialog. There are flaws- but MARY MODERN is interesting and well written.

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