Clones and Complicity Reverberate in 'The Echo Wife'Posted by Cybil on February 1, 2021
This is the case of Evelyn Caldwell. An award-winning geneticist, Evelyn is celebrated in the opening pages of Sarah Gailey's new novel, The Echo Wife, for her advances and achievements in human cloning. Evelyn has dedicated her life’s work to perfecting the cloning process and succeeded in the balance of both creating new life and containing it.
In the early pages of her story, we learn that Evelyn has had to pay a price for her scientific success. Her husband, Nathan, has left her for another woman, their marriage is over, and the cause is squarely placed on Evelyn’s ambition. She has prioritized her career to the point of catastrophe, and at least over the desire to ever have a family.
But Nathan’s no monster. He’s left Evelyn for Evelyn—or an idealized version of her. Martine, his new wife and mother-to-be of his child, is a clone created by Nathan in secret. He has stolen Evelyn’s research, compromised it, and now is having a family with her clone.
But things do not go according to plan, for Evelyn, for Martine, or for Nathan.
Gailey spoke to Goodreads contributor April Umminger about this highly imaginative science fiction thriller and the inspiration behind its creation. In a book that is anything but predictable, they talked about the ways that we define ourselves, the making of monsters, and things that might have been. Their conversation has been edited.
Goodreads: The Echo Wife is such a crazy story in the best possible way. What inspired the story line?
Sarah Gailey: The primary inspiration for this was the aftermath of my own divorce. I was married to a wonderful man, who is nothing like Nathan [the main male character in the book and Evelyn’s ex-husband]. Every time I talk about this book, I want to specify that because I would hate for people who knew the both of us to think [my ex is like that].
We had to go our separate ways, and we did.
It was the first time in my life that I was learning to define myself not based on what anybody else needed from me. I ended up moving to a new state where I did not really know anybody, and I had to reckon with that question of who are we when we aren't being shaped by the people around us and our immediate community and family?
I felt that a clone was just the perfect way to explore that because it is an opportunity to look at what shapes us, what the different possibilities are, and to reckon with the question of which of these is good and which is bad? Is there any such thing as actual self-definition?
GR: I was impressed with how much science you referenced throughout the story. What was your process writing this book and what kind of research did you do to write in an informed way about cloning?
SG: I am going to make a lot of scientists either laugh very hard or get very mad at me with this book.
Most of my scientific research is based in making sure that I wasn't referencing existing technology or methods as much as possible. I know how fast science works. There was every chance that between the time I drafted this book and the time it came out there would be leaps in cloning technology and in our understanding of neurobiology and neuropsychology.
I wanted to make sure that while the methods in the book seemed grounded, they weren't actually me trying to predict what science would do. I drew on a lot of my existing knowledge of anatomy and physiology. I have always been very interested in the body and the science of the body and in medicine.
The remaining bulk of my scientific research was based on lab dynamics. I talked to a few laboratory scientists about what it is like in a working research lab. We talked a lot about relationships in the laboratory dynamic.
It turns out that if you sit a scientist down and you say, “What's the most annoying thing about the people you work with in your lab?” you get a lot of good information. [Laughs.]
SG: It is a very complicated dynamic. Martine is Evelyn's illicit clone that her husband has created in reaction to her. And the person who Evelyn has made herself into is very much in reaction to the person who her mother is and her abusive father.
In the story, you have got Evelyn looking at a person who represents everything she has tried her hardest never to become. However, she also knows that she has a responsibility for this person because this person was created using her technology because of the dissolution of her marriage, and in many ways is a physical manifestation of the ways in which her husband was dissatisfied by her.
Evelyn is suddenly sitting with this person, who she doesn't necessarily consider a person, who she doesn't necessarily respect, but who also represents everything that could be considered her shortcomings as a person.
Meanwhile, Martine has been programmed and molded her entire life to be as pleasing and kind and service-oriented as possible. Suddenly she is faced with this person who she knows she's been created in opposition to.
The two of them must work together to try and pull off something very nearly impossible, where before the idea of the two of them being in the same room together would have seemed very nearly impossible.
If I did my job right, the reader will see a dynamic with two people who both despise each other and wish that they could be like each other. They are constantly measuring themselves against each other, saying, “Who am I compared to you? And why do I have to be compared to you?”
GR: In terms of the relationships formed in The Echo Wife, and Nathan and Evelyn’s marriage, she takes on a more stereotypical, masculine role, while he seems to be in the more feminine one. There is a lot of contempt and resentment that comes from those inversions of traditional roles. At the same time, there is this work partnership between Evelyn and her lab assistant, Seyed, that seems far more functional.
SG: Nathan definitely has contempt for Evelyn. He is based very much on my experiences with a wide variety of men who think that they want to be around an accomplished and intelligent and challenging woman. Then, when they get around that challenged, intelligent, accomplished woman, they're like, “You know, why can't you be less than you are?”
Nathan’s contempt for Evelyn comes from a very familiar place of resentment and insecurity. He does not have the same level of ambition that she does, he doesn't have the same level of skill that she does.
And he's got this assumption when they get married that she's going to set it all aside for him, and be the wife and mother that he wants, and support him in his career. She does not have the same assumptions, which of course leads to some issues in their marriage.
Seyed, meanwhile, Evelyn's laboratory assistant, is treasured and trusted. He is one of the only people who she's willing to work with long-term because he is one of the only people who doesn't irritate her in her lab and who she feels does things right. She's very particular and impatient.
But he also is not willing to sublimate his own personhood for her, similarly to how Evelyn is not willing to set herself aside for Nathan. Seyed has his own interests and needs, and when those get in Evelyn’s way, she feels betrayed. She has come to see him as an extension of herself, and as someone who will do what she needs them to do without their own inconvenient life getting underfoot.
GR: Staying on this question of marriage and relationships in The Echo Wife, the most successful relationship in the book is the one that Evelyn has with herself, or rather the clone of herself. Between Nathan and Evelyn, Nathan and Martine, Evelyn’s mother and father—it is bleak. Is there any hope?
SG: [Laughs.] Not in my books, but yes in the world.
I have three branches of writing that I do. I have got my adult fiction, I have got my young adult fiction, and then I have got my novellas. I tend to put the fast-paced adventure into the novellas, and I tend to put the introspective, bleak trauma into the adult books, and all of the hope goes into the YA.
If you are looking for hope and good relationships and strong marriages and romance that works out great, I promise I believe it exists, just maybe not in this particular book.
GR: I read The Echo Wife in two days. It was such a page-turner, and just when I thought the characters could not take their actions any further, off they went. Without giving too much away, Nathan, Evelyn’s ex-husband and Martine’s creator, seemed on a race to the bottom, time and again.
SG: One of the things that I've started hearing from people about this book is how could Nathan have possibly thought it would be realistic that he would get away with having a clone version of his ex-wife and no one would say anything?
My answer to that is, look at the world around you. This happens everywhere, all the time.
I once was in a relationship with a person who had no business being in a relationship with someone as young as I was. But he curated his community in such a way that nobody asked questions about it. I was not the first person he had done this with, and I was not the last.
As the story progresses, we receive confirmation that Nathan was more monstrous than we expected him to be. He was not just a lousy husband. This wasn't him having a moment of dissatisfaction and slipping up. Nathan is the kind of man who can create someone designed solely to serve his whims and crafts her into someone who will only think of his needs. This is not a man who is only going to hurt one person.
GR: I'm always curious where authors come up with the inspiration for what they call their books. Was there anything significant about the title beyond the echo wife being a clone?
SG: I think the reason The Echo Wife is perfect for this novel is twofold. First, because the echo wife can refer to Martine, an echo of Evelyn. But it can also refer to Evelyn, who is an echo of her own mother.
An echo is not a perfect copy. When you have an echo of your voice, you're not hearing exactly your own voice back; you are hearing your voice distorted and amplified and magnified and changed.
In just that same way, Evelyn, as a wife to Nathan, is an echo of the wife her mother was to her father. And she's an echo of the husband her father was to her mother. Martine is an echo of an echo in that way.
GR: The Echo Wife has some strong references to Frankenstein, particularly a phrase that Evelyn says to herself again and again, that she is not a monster. I can see there being some debate about who is more inhuman: Evelyn or her clone, Martine.
SG: This is one of the most fascinating things to me in the whole world: how we justify the things that we do to ourselves.
I am not willing to tell readers whether Evelyn is good or she's bad. One of the things that I'm most looking forward to when this book comes out is seeing which people think that she's the hero of the story and which people think that she's a villain.
She does very much model herself on people who do bad things. Her father is not a good man, and he shapes her in many ways. She must be able to live with the person who she is, and respect the person who she is, while holding in the other hand how much she is like this man, who was awful.
The only answer to that is to tell yourself, “Well, I'm that, but good.”
It is a thing that we all do, in some way, on some level, in our lives. We’ve all said, “I might be doing this thing that's bad, but I'm good, so it's OK.”
Drawing the parallel to Frankenstein—this is so much to the question of the monsters we create and the monsters we become.
GR: Who is the bigger monster here? I am fascinated by that—the monster question.
SG: It makes me think of my favorite line from Frankenstein. It's the monster saying, “I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”
I still think of that with the way that Martine grows and changes throughout this book. She’s created to be this perfect thing, like the monster in Frankenstein. Then she emerges, and she has her own thoughts and desires, very similar to the monster. She has her own notion of a self that starts to develop.
The fact that she is not perfectly compliant not only makes her a threat to Nathan, who created her, but it also makes her a threat to Evelyn. Evelyn’s research is designed and ethically grounded on the idea that a clone can't develop a notion of a self and can’t have their own desires and personhood.
It is this evolution that makes Martine a person, but in becoming a person she becomes a monster to those who created her.
GR: Did you draw from any books other than Frankenstein when writing The Echo Wife?
SG: One of the huge influences on The Echo Wife was Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, which I feel almost a little cliché in even bringing up.
The way that I conceived of Evelyn is that she is very thoughtful about the person who she is and still turns out as a person who is capable of monstrous things. We think of a mindful person as someone who does everything very intentionally and thus comes out good. I drew a lot on the intersection in Flynn's works for this.
I would also be remiss not to, obviously, reference works like The Stepford Wives, which have explored the notion of creating a perfect wife long before I even became a person.
SG: I am reading this incredible book about mycology, which is the study of fungus. It's called Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake. It is a great nonfiction exploration of the interconnectedness of fungal life and the way that every living creature interacts constantly with fungus, whether we realize it or not.
I also just finished A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers. It’s the start of a new series called the Monk and Robot series. It's about a world in which robots gain self-awareness and go to live in the wilderness to be among the things that weren't created intentionally by human hands.
It is all about purpose and cohabitation and understanding and compassion in much the way that Becky Chambers books always are.
GR: There are some similar themes in The Echo Wife as in one of your other books, River of Teeth. Both explore this covert world of scientific experiments. Is that intentional or just a characteristic of science fiction?
SG: I never would have put that together. I think of River of Teeth and The Echo Wife as being in two different big buckets of the way that I write.
River of Teeth was very much a pulp western. It is very heist-oriented. It is about exploring emotions, it's about adventure. Whereas The Echo Wife is a bit slower, more grounded. No hippos involved.
They are both very much about things that might have been.
The American hippo novellas are about what might have been if the United States had gone a very slightly different direction with a piece of legislation that would have allowed us to import hippos for meat. The Echo Wife is about what might have been if Evelyn Caldwell's life had gone in a direction that would lead her to become more like her mother and less like her father.
GR: And last, what’s the moral of the story? What do you hope that people come away with after reading this book?
SG: Once this book is in the reader’s hands, it belongs to them.
But I do hope that people come away with the understanding of the complexity of the self. I hope that people come away from this thinking, What made me who I am? What made that person, who I think of as a monster, into the person who they are? What kind of excuses do we make for each other based on that?