Saturday, August 21, 2021

Review: Girl One by Sara Flannery Murphy

Wow—what a premise. A disgraced scientist discovers a way for women to give birth to clones of themselves (through parthenogenesis), and convinces nine women to bring nine daughters into the world and live together in a remote commune. Angry men, claiming God is on their side, burn down the community and the women and their daughters scatter across the country. Twenty years later, Mother One goes missing and Girl One has to find her.

I had so many questions and I couldn't wait for the author to explore them. What would motivate women to undergo something so very experimental for such an important and private part of your life? Were they particularly interested in creating miniatures of themselves, or was it the ability to becomes mothers without the involvement of men that appealed to them? Why live together in a commune? Was it a recognition that it takes a village to raise a child? Was it polyamoury? In what ways is the mother-daughter bond different when you share 100% of your genetic materials but experience very different childhoods?

Flannery Murphy found more to explore in the younger generation, however. That's not entirely unjustified—what is it like to not have a genetic father, to grow up famous for being a scientific miracle? But I found the answer to these questions a little unsatisfying. Respectively: you idolize a creepy scientist as a father figure; you sometimes give a bad media interview here and there and kids are a little mean about it but it isn't anything you can't shrug off.

What's most frustrating about this difference in emphasis is that the Mother generation becomes all the more fascinating as the mysteries of Dr Bellanger's role in the "scientific miracle" and who started the fire are revealed. We learn that the Mothers were women who came together as a group out of a desire to re-discover parthenogenesis—placing themselves in the footsteps from women from witchy folkloric tales who seem to have been able to give birth to daughters without fathers, although not recognized as such at the time. With their research coming to dead ends, they sought out a scientist to help them achieve this goal, and eventually discovered the ability to become pregnant on their own without his interference. Feeling threatened by these women no longer needing him at all, Dr Bellanger manipulated and abused the women. Eventually, he burned down the house, faking his death and the death of Girl Nine, who showed telekinetic abilities. These were some delightful, unexpected, and unique twists!

In contrast, the Daughter generation discovering and coming to terms with their latent magical powers felt like well-trodden ground for anyone that lived through our present era of unending Marvel blockbusters. It was a bit of a waste of such a neat premise.

I think there is space to have told the story that Flannery Murphy ultimately told, without keeping the Mother generation at arm's length. The "found media" of newspaper clipping and letters that she already used would have been a perfect device to explore the relationship between Mother One and Trish, or how the Mothers all found one another.

Character study failings aside, I thought the social commentary was explored well. As in our world, in the world of Girl One, men respond to the loss of power over women with violence and misogyny (I get the sense that Sarah Flannery Murphy would enjoy Down Girl by Kate Manne). Men, like Dr Bellanger, insert themselves into the birthing process in positions of power and authority without respect for the autonomy of women, from abortion policies to obstetric practices. Dr Bellanger does as too many men have done before him, and steals the spotlight from women and minimizes their contributions. Through Dr Bellanger's fear and jealousy at Lilliane conceiving a second child all on her own, we see a science fiction version of the uncertainty of paternity compared to the certainty of a woman always knowing the mother of the child within her. 

I got the sense that the author was familiar with the feminist movements of the 1970s and the 1990s, the decades in which the bulk of the story was set. The characters felt like 1970s feminists and 1990s feminists, not post-slut walk or post-#MeToo feminists transported through time into the 1970s and the 1990s. I mean this in a good way; the debate was kept fresh by the unusual premise.

The blurb of the book compared the story to Margaret Atwood's work, and I think this expectation worked to Girl One's detriment. I found the prose uninteresting and the dialogue and scene structure a little pulpy. I pushed myself through the first quarter out of sheer stubbornness to learn whether the boring-as-oatmeal main character's worship of the creepy Dr Bellanger was a brilliant portrayal of an unreliable narrator or astounding lack of insight on behalf of the author. (This is not the first time I've read a book for that reason!) Fortunately, it turned out to be the former, and once I adjusted my expectations that the book was going to be a medium-smart thriller with a penchant for giving implausible excuses for why the Most Dramatic Decision must always be made it was a fun enough ride.

Ignore the book's tagline and any other media that compares this book to The Handmaid's Tale. The last bit of the book blurb, "Girl One combines the provocative imagination of Naomi Alderman’s The Power with the propulsive, cinematic storytelling of a Marvel movie", is far more accurate.


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