The Echo Wife
By Sarah Gailey
Tor Books — February 2021
ISBN: 9781250174666 — Hardcover — 256 pp.
If you haven’t read anything yet about the plot to Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife, you might consider starting it without indulging in any summaries, not even what’s on the cover jacket. And long story short, I strongly recommend The Echo Wife. I received the novel and placed it on the ARC shelf with all the others, entering into my notes for potential review. As time passed I saw more word-of-mouth posts praising the novel; mentions included it being featured on several Best… or Most Anticipated… of 2021 lists, both within the SF genre and pop-culture wide. I still didn’t read what the book was actually about, and as for Sarah Gailey, I couldn’t recall ever reading their work before to know if I would like it. Despite the broad hype (which always makes me leery), I decided to start reading The Echo Wife – probably because specific authors and reviewers I’m fond of also hyped it. I cracked the ARC open and began reading, still without even reading the back cover synopsis, only expecting something SF that somehow involved genetics.
Not until approximately page 50 of the novel does the The Echo Wife fully reveal one of its major themes and plot elements. It takes a few more chapters still for an event to occur that sets the rest of the novel into motion. For certain there are hints to these things earlier in the novel, but Gailey gradually reveals details about their protagonist and the speculative world, details that the synopsis just flat-out states, lessening the reveal.
Now this is understandable, potential readers have to be told something about what this book is about, and even knowing these details, there are still a lot of surprises and discoveries for the rest of the novel until its ending. But, if a reader can be convinced to give this book a try without knowing any details, well, it makes it even all the more a satisfying read. Prior to any plot ‘reveals’, here is what Gailey establishes in the earliest pages of the novel:
The novel begins with genetics researcher Dr. Evelyn Caldwell attending an awards reception/banquet in her honor. Brilliant, but feeling out-of-place in this social setting, Evelyn cooperates in the engagement only because of its necessity for securing continued support for her ground-breaking research in growing human tissues in the lab. While tolerating the spectacle of the present by keeping her eyes on her future plans, Evelyn also reflects upon her past struggles to get here. Throughout professional and personal hurdles, including recent separation from her husband Nathan, Evelyn has persevered, sacrificed, and found success.
Following the reception and rest to recover, Evelyn returns to her life: the laboratory. Fired up to keep things moving forward and squashing all uncertainties or self-doubt that still rear their heads in her psyche, Evelyn gives orders to her lab assistant, the only other person that Evelyn trusts as competent and reliable. About to start on the research, Evelyn’s assistant informs her that she has received a phone message from a woman named Martine. This stops Evelyn with a shock: Martine, the new fiancée of Evelyn’s former husband Nathan, a woman whose existence she has even kept secret from her trusted assistant. Hesitant, Evelyn decides to go meet Martine, where she – and the reader – find their first surprise.
If you happen to still know nothing more of this novel, do consider leaving it at that. The Echo Wife is a speculative fiction thriller that predominantly focuses on themes of women in research and the personal life that a woman is expected to have versus that which they may choose to have. The speculative aspect involves genetics, though do not expect it to be fully fleshed out science. Dr. Caldwell’s award-winning research and techniques are vaguely described in terms of epigenetics and development, but not in believable detail that a biologist could imagine this speculative technology as actually existing. The reader is just asked to accept the science (fiction) as a set up for the social issues and character relationships that lie at the heart of the novel. That seems intentional by Gaiely, and that’s perfectly fine to a reader like me. In fact, a lot of the details in the science are things that Evelyn herself doesn’t at first understand completely, things she’ll have to look into further. The unexpected, seemingly ‘impossible’ aspects of the speculative elements in the novel are thus kind of the point, part of the mystery.
And mystery/crime/thriller is a category that The Echo Wife fits into just as comfortably as science fiction. However, it is not about solving a mystery, nor is it filled with taut action. It’s about how characters deal with secrets, mysteries, and uncertainties; how crimes can be covered up, and with resilience, moved past to still find some sort of success. It’s a psychologically driven thriller around the characters of Evelyn and Martine, women with a shared history, yet very unique. The Echo Wife speaks a lot to the experience of women in science – or professional lives in general. It raises a lot of moral questions, but doesn’t seek to provide trite answers. Again and again Evelyn writes: I am not a monster. The reader is left to conclude the truth to that statement. Gailey writes their characters in ways that blur the lines between hero and victim and villain, and they capture them with prose that never becomes oppressively dark, yet always has a foreboding shadow of secretes and deception lying behind it.
If you have already read other reviews or synopses of The Echo Wife to know more specific details, I’ll go into a few of those things, particularly biology aspects I find interesting as a biologist, here after this Gram negative:
SPOILER OUTER MEMBRANE
SPOILER PEPTIDOGLYCAN (PERIPLASM)
SPOILER CELL MEMBRANE
So, Martine is a clone of Evelyn; after voicing resistance to Nathan’s desires for her, and then being attacked by Nathan, Martine kills Nathan. Evelyn is willing to help, both in physically hiding Nathan’s body in the garden, and supporting Martine, who Nathan has biologically programmed with limitations and kept in ignorance. Bodies in the garden will return in multiple ways before novel’s end.
Gailey handles all of these twists fantastically well, plus others like Evelyn’s betrayal in the lab and Evelyn’s relationship with her parents. All disparate elements filter in for the same theme, the formation of a woman. Who is Evelyn/Martine, and why? How much is her and how much is conditioning and the will of others? Gailey takes this beyond the whole nature/nurture kind of debate when it comes to speculative genetics in a more modern way.
What I mean is: Clones are not a new theme to science fiction. The term ‘clone’ in this context means an organism that is genetically identical. Science fiction has used clones – even furthered to include the copying of memories and experiences. What Gailey does a bit differently here is playing with that term ‘identical’, in ways that more closely match actual biological reality. In that classic SF sense of ‘clone’ Martine isn’t really a clone of Evelyn at all. She is a genetically modified creation built upon an Evelyn template. And really, that is what all human cloning would result in.
After all, all of our cells are clones of each other. They all contain the same DNA (or lose it). Yet one cell can form part of heart tissue, another lung, another a neuron, another a leukocyte, another osteoclast. Very, very different, yet with the same blueprints. And that’s just in one organism through developmental variations in gene expression. Between two that share 100% of the same genetic material there is a complicating factor of epigenetics – changes that occur through DNA modifications, inherited protein structures, inherited microbes, etc.
Somehow, Dr. Evelyn Caldwell has found a way to not just let those processes proceed, that create variability even in a 100% DNA identical genetic clone, but to exert directed changes in them. Moreover, she has somehow found a way to map memories and selectively impart those. Nathan has taken her techniques and purposefully made changes she explicitly set out to not allow in the clones. This creates a lot to ponder regarding bioethics, even if Gailey doesn’t really go that classical direction in their novel.
Instead Gailey takes it to that level of the ethics of Nathan purposefully making an Evelyn replacement adhering to his desires and plans that the actual Evelyn did not make a priority. These physical actions mirror what men (or really spouses or even relationships in general) do to one another in s symbolic sense all the time. Within a relationship, what are the balances between sacrificing versus selfishness? Are professional concerns different from others? And what are the differences between the genders for these decisions/expectations?
With the foundation of speculation around ‘cloning’ Gailey forms all of these questions (and more) through their fascinatingly flawed characters and engaging plot. Whether all, or just some of it, represents a surprise to readers shouldn’t affect one’s overall appreciation of the novel. If you go into this expecting an action-driven SF murder thriller, you might be disappointed, because that’s not what it is. If one lets The Echo Wife speak on its own terms, I believe readers will find it has a lot to say and provide one to consider, and it will entertain. And that is what good speculative fiction and a thriller does.
I’ve now had the chance to also read a short story by Sarah Gailey in the Escape Pod anthology, which I’m reviewing for Skiffy & Fanty. I’ll definitely keep my eyes open for more of their future work, and hopefully have a chance to also read some of that prior.