There’s no such thing as the perfect spouse, though many people have tried to mold a person into that elusive flawless companion. When science gets involved, creating that perfect spouse becomes a far more literal task. That question is explored, more than once, in Sarah Gailey’s chilling The Echo Wife, which sunk its claws deep into me and still won’t let go.
Evelyn is at the cutting edge of her field in developing clones capable of being “conditioned” into being and doing what they need to. Most of her specimens stay in vats, their various developmental failures diagnosed and recorded for future use. She also has to deal with the tension of her ex-husband, Nathan, leaving her for another woman. Besides the betrayal, Nathan’s new domestic situation represents a collision of her personal and private lives, because the other woman is a clone of Evelyn—and she’s pregnant.
That the clone, Martine, shouldn’t even be able to become pregnant quickly becomes secondary when Martine calls Evelyn in a panic. Evelyn arrives to find Martine holding a knife and covered in blood, and Nathan’s lifeless body on the floor. Self-defense, Martine assures Evelyn, but that doesn’t lessen the pickle they’re both in because Martine, as a sentient, free-roaming clone, is very illegal. Although Nathan created Martine, calling police would still result in an inquiry that would ruin Evelyn’s career. So, the women drag him to the back yard and start digging.
With the problem of a dead body solved, another remains: how to conceal the fact that Nathan is missing? Luckily, Evelyn has all the skills they need to make another Nathan. A kinder Nathan. A better Nathan. Aided by her lab assistant and Martine, Evelyn gets to work, haunted as she is by the echoes of her past and the reverberations promised by her present actions. Just another clone—what could go wrong?
Obviously, a lot, and that penultimate turn accelerates the pace of a novel that already demanded that I read nearly all of it in a single day. Evelyn isn’t a particularly pleasant person to occupy as a POV character, but her anger is justified and her predicament utterly compelling. The ethics of the plot demand consideration far more than deciding what is right and wrong, particularly because nearly everything seems to be in various shades of gray (with the exception of, like, everything that Nathan does. Nathan sucks). Martine, as an individual, is clearly an unethical product of science, but Evelyn watches with fascination as Martine gradually but decidedly breaks out of her programmed Stepford Wife perfection. When New Nathan is finally complete, the clash between cognitively knowing he’s done nothing wrong and still experiencing strong feelings about his reprehensible actions creates a new challenge for the women. And that baby, slowly growing in Martine’s belly, presents a whole bunch of other questions and challenges in this morally murky plot.
I mentioned that I read nearly all of this book in a day. That would be the whole book less the first five chapters or so. Although Evelyn’s anger is justified and her personality perfectly suited for the life she leads, both make for a difficult character to inhabit until the plot picks up. For someone so pragmatic and biting, she sure does lob out a lot of dramatic thoughts given their own paragraph breaks. From the fourth chapter:
“I’ve never been an optimist.
I’ve never had cause to expect a positive outcome when all the signs point to a negative one.
I bowed to optimism one time, and it was a mistake.”
Do all of those sentences need their own lines? I don’t think they do, personally, but it seems I am overruled for the entire book. It is worst, or at least the most noticeable, at the beginning. Evelyn never becomes a cheerier or softer character (and if she were, she’d be Martine, maybe) but the acerbic ridges of her personality are far better suited for crisis management than in the moments before. Since most of the story does deal with crisis management, this actually works out pretty great for her, and for the reader. But I can’t help but wonder if this book started a chapter or two too early.
I did love watching the two women interact, seeing where their personalities and habits intersected and where they diverged. Evelyn is fascinated by this, too, adding another layer of interest in seeing what she sees—and what she doesn’t. At some turns, The Echo Wife gave me a similar vibe to The Need, if The Need were inverted once or twice and stood on its head. The question of nature vs nurture is too simplistic for what transpires between and around Evelyn and Martine. They are who they are, though the circumstances that birthed and shaped each of them are wildly different. Their convergence at the manipulative hands of Nathan, though, knots them together more firmly than their shared genetics ever could.
This book kept me up late and won’t leave me alone. When it starts to fade, I think I’ll miss it and have to read it again (but maybe I’ll skip the first few chapters).