What’s the Story?
Doctor Mara Fox, leading fertility doctor, is bored of her work. A colleague approaches her with an offer seemingly too good to be true: her own department, an extraordinary budget, and no oversight. The only downside: it’s technically part of a religious college.
After dithering about for a quarter of the book, Mara goes. Everything is great there. She meets another scientist, Scanlon, who has a mysterious department. They like each other. Like, as more than friends. This has never happened to Mara before. Scanlon tells her about his pet project: taking old relics and scouring them for Jesus’ DNA.
What’s the Problem?
You can probably see where the story is going: they found Jesus’ DNA and are going to clone him. Hell, you could probably tell that much from the title of the book. So the main problem is:
Mara Isn’t Onboard with This
She discovers the whole cloning-Christ thing when her IVF patient has a possible problem and she runs the foetus’s DNA and it doesn’t match the mother or the father. Turns out Scanlon did a switcharoo with the woman’s embryo that the potplants saw coming but our world-class, supposedly-intelligent narrator doctor doesn’t see coming.
It doesn’t fit her character for her not to see that coming. It also means that all the ethical implications of cloning Jesus are pretty well ignored. Instead, Mara keeps going on about whether her patient was told and, if not, whether she has the right to abort the foetus. Which Goldsworthy could have done in other situations. Cloning the possible messiah opens up a whole different playfield and a set of unique questions (like, “If we clone Jesus, does that mean we created the Second Coming? And if God is real, does this mean we’re about to bring about the Rapture and the End of Days?”), which the author ignores.
Get to the Point
Mara takes ages doing things. From the minute we hear about the job, the reader knows she’s going to take it (and eventually clone Jesus), but Goldsworthy spends another quarter of the book before she says yes. Another quarter with her settling in. Another quarter with a romance. Finally he gets to the part where they clone Jesus. If you’re still reading by then.
Mara’s never really though about religion. Cloning Jesus means nothing to her; it’s the violation of the mother’s Right to Know that she gets uppity about. Her mother is a cliched churchgoer who, in this kind of story, could have been the voice in favour when Mara reveals the whole cloning-God thing (if Mara had told her mum, and cared about that) and Mara could have been the one saying “He’s just a person, he’s not God”.
Instead, in a story that centres around religion, religion barely plays a part. She works at a Christian university where they try to clone God and she doesn’t care about the whole “Are you trying to make yourselves God, and isn’t that the original sin” part. She tells everyone she’s not really religious and it never causes a problem with these cardboard cutout figures of American South Christianity.
The Relationship with Scanlon
Mara finds herself attracted to Scanlon (who is 20 years her junior and described as “sweaty” every time he enters a scene. Mara has never really had any relationships before. She’s a forty-five year old virgin. She’s never had the biological urge and has thought dating somewhat dumb and sexist. She doesn’t go all-the-way to feminist, but early on she seems like she might.
But this dripping (almost) teenager (almost) brings out something motherly in her where she becomes happy washing his shirts while he sleeps. She wants to take care of him.
So, in the middle of the book, we stop hearing medical jargon and Mara stops going to dinners with her boss and snidely disliking everyone she meets… and the book turns into Twilight. Suddenly everything is dreamy and Mara can’t stop thinking about Scanlon and she lives just to be with him again.
What the hell happened to our almost-feminist, eternally-pragmatic, very-scientific and cold narrator? Did the author get bored with that character and wrote this to spice up the book? Did he then remember “Oh, shit, I was totally going to clone God. I should get to that soon”?
So the relationship ends exactly when Scanlon switches the embryos. He stops taking her calls, he remains out of the office so she can’t see him, and Mara – with all the maturity of someone thirty years younger – spends a few chapters not getting the point, then being all weepy that the cute boy (well, the sweaty one) is now going out with someone else.
Despite the fact that both she and Scanlon had said they don’t believe in love. WHAT DID YOU THINK WAS HAPPENING, MARA? DID YOU THINK YOU WERE SPECIAL AND HE COULD NEVER DO THIS TO YOU?
[Sigh] It’s just… I get that breakups are probably hard no matter what age you are (especially so if it’s your first), but it wasn’t like Scanlon lied to her. Mara had her head in the clouds or up her arse or somewhere that didn’t resemble the real world so I feel no pity or sorrow when she loses those delusions.
Pay attention, Mara. Try, just try, with your PhD and your entire surgery, to be more intelligent than Bella Swan.
[Spoilers abound from here on]
At the end at the book, Mara gives the IVF woman (cloned-Jesus’ future mother) an abortion, says it’s a miscarriage (like anyone will believe that), then flushes all evidence of the foetus so they can’t clone the clone and destroys all other Jesus DNA samples in Scanlon’s office.
Yeah, no one is going to guess that the one person who knew where those were kept and who had a problem with the whole thing would have given the woman drugs to cause a miscarriage then destroyed the samples.
Actually, yes. Yes they would. Because there were no other suspects at all.
Doesn’t matter. That isn’t part of the story, so she gets away scott-free.
The Pregnancy at the Very End
Mara actually keeps one set of Jesus DNA for reasons she can’t quite articulate (probably because they don’t fit her character at all and Goldsworthy couldn’t justify them in the slightest). And at the end of the book, she’s pregnant.
OMG!! Is it Scanlon’s? Or is it Jesus? Did she inseminate herself with a clone??
This above is what it seems Goldsworthy wants us to be thinking. (The ending is deliberately ambiguous so we don’t know what the truth is.) What I actually thought is closer to this:
… Really? She’s pregnant? [Sigh] Are you kidding?
It’s a cheap ending. It’s like the end of the Godzilla film – you killed the monster but OMG there are more eggs hatching right now!!! That’s a fine ending for a turn-your-brain-off monster movie, it’s an awful idea for a serious medical/religious book.
Setting apart the fact that Mara’s overtly-Christian mother suddenly has no problem with the fact that Mara is pregnant out of wedlock, it’s not the sort of ending for a serious book. Also, she has no reason to inseminate herself with the Jesus DNA: she didn’t want a family and didn’t care about religion. She has nothing to gain by inseminating herself.
So why have the open ending? Why have a first-person narrator who keeps secrets? I can’t think of a reason. But then, it’s fairly obvious by now that I clearly don’t get whatever Goldsworthy was trying to do with this book.
What’s the Solution?
1) Have a narrator who has real reasons to want or not want the cloning of Jesus. Also, if she’s forty-five, she’s been in relationships before. Unless she has a severe physical deformity, she has lost her virginity already. Don’t stretch believability for no reason.
2) Clone Jesus.
3) See what the world says/does/etc with the knowledge that God has been cloned. How do the religious react? How do athiests react to proof that Jesus (as a man, not necessarily as God) existed? How do the other religions react?
4) Prove/disprove the existence of God. Possibly bring about the Rapture. Or have Jesus-clone grow up being a boring, normal person. Or something unexpected happens.
5) Make cloning Jesus more important in your story than the narrator’s love interest.
I had high hopes for this book. It has been on reading lists and apparently defies categorisation and other buzzphrases that people use when something is really good and thought-provoking.
Instead, I feel like this is a first-draft. There are some good ideas here, but they’re buried. Deep. The relationship; the waffling narration that doesn’t get to the point (or doesn’t know what readers have assumed of a book called Honk If You Are Jesus); the fact that the narrator doesn’t care about the central conflict of her own story: they all need fixing. You could keep essentially the same story and make it better by speeding up the getting there and dwelling more on the pregnancy.
Or you could write the book that people wanted, in which the foetus is brought to term and people have to confront their deepest-held religious beliefs.
As it is, nah. I wouldn’t bother reading it. I only finished it because I was sure that it would have to get to the point soon. It didn’t. Don’t bother.