Book Review: The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey

Title: The Echo Wife
Author: Sarah Gailey
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: February 16, 2021
Length: 256 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The Echo Wife is a non-stop thrill ride, perfect for readers of Big Little Lies and enthusiasts of “Killing Eve” and “Westworld­”

Martine is a genetically cloned replica made from Evelyn Caldwell’s award-winning research. She’s patient and gentle and obedient. She’s everything Evelyn swore she’d never be. And she’s having an affair with Evelyn’s husband.

Now, the cheating bastard is dead, and the Caldwell wives have a mess to clean up. Good thing Evelyn Caldwell is used to getting her hands dirty.

Wow, do I hate the synopsis for this book! It makes it sound cheap and derivative, and it’s not either of those things!

At under 300 pages, The Echo Wife is a taught, exciting, provocative tale, with not an ounce of wasted space or padding. It’s compelling reading, start to finish… and the synopsis doesn’t even begin to do it justice.

Evelyn Caldwell is a highly esteemed pioneer in the field of cloning, at the pinnacle of her career, but with a personal life that’s fallen apart. Her husband Nathan, not as talented as Evelyn, has apparently resented her brilliance, success, and focus on her career for a long time. And as Evelyn learns, Nathan knows just enough to steal her scientific secrets and replicate her research, producing a cloned duplicate of Evelyn whom he’s programmed to be a perfect wife.

Evelyn’s clone Martine appears identical to Evelyn, but Nathan has programmed Martine to be all the things he wants but couldn’t get from Evelyn — a devoted wife, submissive and obedient, living to please, and eager to bear his children. Of course, what he’s done is a huge ethical breach as well as a theft of Evelyn’s research and an absolute betrayal of their marriage.

Evelyn is a brilliant, focused, unemotional woman who lives to find truth in science. Her work in cloning is revolutionary. She’s very clear on the boundaries of her work: Clones are produced for a purpose — they’re not people, they’re scientific material. If one is faulty, it becomes biowaste. They’re grown in a lab, programmed for specific types of brain patterns to create the desired cognition, and “conditioned” to match the original. Conditioning is a particularly disturbing part of the creation of clones, and a step that causes Evelyn to lose multiple lab assistants. Since clones are produced fresh and new, to become convincing duplicates, their bodies must be conditioned to match the original, meaning scars, missing organs, teeth, and limbs, and other physical defects must be replicated. Yes, this is just as gross as it sounds, but serves as a visceral example of how Evelyn views clones as laboratory materials, not people.

Martine’s very existence throws a wrench into Evelyn’s carefully ordered scientific approach. She can’t convince herself that Martine isn’t a person, not when Martine starts to grown and ask questions and think for herself. The more entangled Evelyn becomes with Martine, the more she’s forced to face certain truths about herself, her work, and what it actually means — and face her own troubled childhood and accept how it’s affected her and programmed her to be who she is.

I didn’t forge the tool. I just wanted to use it effectively. That didn’t make me a monster. It wasn’t wrong of me, wishing she would behave as she’d been designed to.

The Echo Wife also provides a scathing commentary on the odiousness of the sexism that women in science face. Even at the height of her success, at a celebration in honor of her achievements, Evelyn is subjected to mansplaining and interruptions from male colleagues who feel a need to correct her.

Evelyn is not what society as a whole might consider a likeable woman. She’s sanded away all the softness and uncertainty from her public persona. She’s polished, professional, unapologetic, straightforward, no fidgeting, no second-guessing. But when Martine enters her life, Evelyn sees all the pieces her husband found lacking — Martine is pleasing and sweet, and always mindful of what she’s for.

There’s no winning. Either I’m a bitch who needs to control everything, or I’m an easy mark.

Martine wasn’t just a manifestation of my failure to create a foolproof cloning model. She wasn’t just a symbol of my failure to hang on to a man who had been good when I met him. Before he married me.

She was also a consequence of my failure to keep a handle on things.

The plot of The Echo Wife is complex and constantly surprising, with big shocking revelations as well as smaller moments that are just as unsettling and powerful. The intricacies of the moral dilemmas represented by Evelyn’s and Martine’s connections are truly mesmerizing, and their shifting power dynamics can be mind-boggling.

While overall more psychological than bloody, there are some moments that seem to lean more heavily toward horror, and even the matter-of-fact description of the cloning process can be pretty gruesome, especially when presented in such a cut-and-dried fashion.

Sarah Gailey’s writing is always surprising and powerful, and The Echo Wife is no exception. I found it fascinating, and recommend it highly.

Check out this insightful interview with the author on Goodreads for more on The Echo Wife.

And a final note — please ignore the obligatory hype-machine comparisons to Big Little Lies, Westworld, etc. It’s its own thing, and is actually far better than the books and TV shows it’s being compared to!

Flashback Friday: It’s an All-Clone Two-fer!

Flashback Friday is my own little weekly tradition, in which I pick a book from my reading past to highlight. If you’d like to join in, here are the Flashback Friday book selection guidelines:

  1. Has to be something you’ve read yourself
  2. Has to still be available, preferably still in print
  3. Must have been originally published 5 or more years ago

Other than that, the sky’s the limit! Join me, please, and let us all know: what are the books you’ve read that you always rave about? What books from your past do you wish EVERYONE would read? Pick something from five years ago, or go all the way back to the Canterbury Tales if you want. It’s Flashback Friday time!

My picks for this week’s Flashback Friday:

 

The Boys From Brazil by Ira Levin (published 1976)

Joshua Son of None by Nancy Freedman (published 1973)

It’s a cloning two-fer! What was going on in the American psyche in the 1970s that made the topic of cloning both so fascinating and so frightening?

The Boys From Brazil is a very scary story about a secret plot to clone Hitler. Joshua Son of None is a not-quite-as-scary story about efforts to clone a Kennedy-esque US President. Both present cloning at a time when it was a new and hypothetical possibility, something out of science fiction dreams that only recently contained the first inklings of real, feasible scientific accomplishment. Both books address the role of upbringing and environment in human development: Is it enough to carry a certain genetic code in order to achieve the desired results, or does the cloned person’s entire life need to be recreated in order to give the genetic inheritance a chance to come to fruition?

When these two books were written, of course all of this was far-distant and purely speculative. Now, given our 21st century advances in genetic engineering and reproductive technologies, the science, at least, is possible, although the nature versus nurture debate remains. I would imagine that both books, while startling for their time, might seem a little less so now, although the central question remains: If we have the science to clone a great man, should we? And if the science exists to clone a monster, what could anyone do to stop it?

I remember being quite fascinated by both of these books when I first encountered them. I’d love to know how they’d strike a new reader today — scary or silly? If you’ve read these books and have any thoughts about them, share a comment!

So, what’s your favorite blast from the past? Leave a tip for your fellow booklovers!

Note from your friendly Bookshelf Fantasies host: To join the Flashback Friday fun, write a blog post about a book you love and share your link below. Don’t have a blog post to share? Then share your favorite oldie-but-goodie in the comments section. Jump in!