The celebration at the beginning of Sarah Gailey’s novel, The Echo Wife, doesn’t feel like much of a celebration. Protagonist Evelyn Caldwell is there to accept an award for her groundbreaking work but the discomfort from her dress and—more importantly—her recent divorce is ruining her night. It wasn’t until later that I learned things about Caldwell that made me uncomfortable about the accolades she’s received. The uneasiness never goes away. Gailey keeps piling it on in this absolutely brilliant retelling of the Faust story.
Evelyn’s work is secretive, but not entirely secret. She works for a private corporation, producing clones to work as doubles for paranoid politicians, doctors, and others. Her great work is “conditioning” clones so that they look (down to the scars) and act exactly like their originals. She never expected her work to be used against her, but that’s precisely what her ex-husband did. Evelyn’s husband stole her work and created a new version to be a perfect wife. It’s clear that Evelyn is still wrestling with the anger and humiliation of that discovery. One might think that it’s a sign of Evelyn’s better nature that she agrees to help her clone when Martine calls her for help with the kind of favor that we all use as the mark of a great friendship: help hiding a body. Unfortunately for Evelyn, that favor also means using her expertise to replace that body with a living replica.
I could follow every step of Evelyn’s logic, but I would never call it impeccable because it just compounds the wrongness of the whole distressing story. Evelyn sees herself as strong. She remembers how her father conditioned her to never cry, never apologize, never ask forgiveness for her pursuit of knowledge. And she doesn’t. She can only see each challenge that comes her way as a chance to push further into the unknown. Evelyn never really shakes that Faustian drive, although she does start to acknowledge that there are things she should have thought of while she was busy trying to perfect her science. For example, she should have thought about whether the clones she creates have rights or independence or even the ability to grow. Martine and her favors bring Evelyn closer to realizing the ethical dilemmas than the poor creature ever could in Frankenstein.
Even though I was deeply uncomfortable throughout The Echo Wife, I enjoyed every page. Gailey is fantastic in her characterization of Evelyn and Martine. Best of all, Gailey is brilliant in the way that she slowly peels away the layers of the story to reveal delicious ethical dilemmas to think about long after the last page. This is science fiction at its best.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.