The Basics: There's usually not much correlation between the scientific method and writing novels, especially not literary coming-of-age novels full of passion and angst. But Carole Cadwalladr, a British journalist, turns her first book into a genetics experiment, following the strict rules of examination that she lists in her opening chapter: Observe, hypothesize, experiment and evaluate the results. The Monroe family, which she puts under the microscope, is a rich stew of eccentricities, strong opinions, bad luck, lost loves, inflated egos and sibling rivalries. How these things affect Rebecca, the youngest member of the clan, is the main inquiry.
The Catch: The adult Rebecca narrating the story doesn't take well to being an experiment '- literally. Her husband, Alistair, is a genetic biologist, and every month she troops off to his office to give blood and answer questions. She thinks she's just helping him out '- his version of a human fruit fly '- but then she starts to think about her family and what might be in her genes, and the idea begins to form that there's something in her inherited DNA that is very strange.
Why It's Good: The young Rebecca is a feisty, defiant child who hits the 1970s at full throttle, digging into the feminist sex books hidden in her aunt's bedroom, tackling the changing social mores in England with much more frankness than her mother or her grandmothers appreciate and looking forward to a life as an independent woman. Weaving back and forth from the present to the past, and using footnotes to explain such things as the impact of Love Story and Coronation Street, Cadwalladr creates a fascinating spine for the story. Her attention to the details of that Day-Glo era, especially to the accoutrements of middle class life and the way the stiff British culture takes to such American oddities as luxury campers and chocolate chip cookies, sets her up as a British incarnation of John Updike.
iVillage Mood Meter: Engross yourself
Author: Carole Cadwalladr
Publisher: Dutton, $23.95