Laurence Gonzales’ novel Lucy is one of the best received and more highly anticipated releases of the summer. With its back cover promising ‘a daring biotechnical thriller in the tradition of Mary Shelly and Michael Crichton,’ my interest was piqued.
Let me preface my review by stating that Lucy is a good book but nowhere near as dark as Shelly’s Frankenstein and not nearly as technically challenging as anything by the late Michael Crichton. What Gonzales has done is pay homage to both of these authors with a modern tale in which an aggressive scientist splices the genes of a human with that of a bonobo or pygmy chimpanzee, and the result is the surprisingly humanistic Lucy.
The Crichton homage is overtly obvious. The Lucy experiment is done in the African Congo and one of Crichton’s more popular novels was Congo, which featured an acutely intelligent ape named Amy. Lucy lives with her human father and bonobo mother in the Congo until she is 15 years old. An act of horrific violence leaves both her ‘parents’ dead, and Lucy is found by a primatologist and friend of her father named Jenny Lowe. Jenny fixes the appropriate paperwork so that she can bring Lucy with her to her home in Chicago and then look to get her placed with a proper family to raise her.
Jenny takes to Lucy and, although she is intrigued by some of her odd quirks, does not suspect her actual origin. Jenny merely attributes Lucy’s ‘oddness’ to having been raised in the Congo with no other human contact but that of her late father. It is only once Jenny goes through the notebooks that Lucy’s father left that she realizes he succeeded in his ‘Frankenstein-like experiment by creating life from a combination of sources.
Lucy enrolls in the local high school and is befriended by quirky Amanda, who quickly becomes her best friend. Though obviously different, Lucy begins to slowly adapt to the ways of ‘humans’ and even becomes a state wrestling champion. As with all thrillers of this type, it is impossible for Jenny Lowe to conceal Lucy’s true nature forever; a high fever forces her into hospitalization where her blood is taken and examined. Fearing that the CDC will be alerted to the results of Lucy Lowe’s unique DNA make-up, Amanda and Lucy choose to be proactive and create a YouTube video that spills the beans on Lucy’s origin as well as painting her as a typical ‘American Girl’ (complete with musical background by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers featuring the aforementioned song).
Here the book threatens to fall victim to cliché seen too many times in these types of tales. When the ‘other’ proves to be a threat to mankind, the ‘evil’ human race/military/scientists seek to capture Lucy and either experiment on her or eliminate her (or both). The set-up of such black-and-white stereotypes made me fear that the novel was going to become another E.T.. Thankfully, Gonzales pulls back a bit and returns the novel to that of a morality tale that is quite satisfying.
There is the old adage that a thousand monkeys typing on a thousand typewriters for a thousand years could recreate the complete works of William Shakespeare. Lucy points out this adage when she is confronted by a government panel and adds, quite poignantly, that this might be an outcome of mindless typing by non-humans - but can a non-human quote a passage from Shakespeare verbatim? The highlight of the novel for me is when Lucy does just that by reciting a passage from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, thus, proving that Lucy is much more than an ‘ape’ and this novel is much more than just a summer beach book.