The Daughter of Doctor Moreau by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
It’s 1877, and on a decaying rancho deep in the Yucatán peninsula, Carlota Moreau’s sheltered life — and world — is about to change. Carlota’s father, Doctor Moreau, conducts experiments on human-animal hybrids, with a stated goal of improving humanity. When his patrons, the Lizalde family, threaten to withdraw their support, catastrophic events are set in motion with Carlota at their center.
“Melodrama” has a bad reputation, but when it’s done intentionally and well, it is a high-quality entertainment form. In the hands of a prose stylist as good as Moreno-Garcia, it’s elevated. 2022’s The Daughter of Doctor Moreau was inspired by the H.G. Wells book The Island of Doctor Moreau, but it isn’t a retelling. With many of the same issues, it is a different story. Alongside the ethical questions of the doctor’s work is an historical uprising of the Maya, who seek their freedom from the colonial Mexicans who exploit them.
My rating of this book may seem low to you as you read this review. If so, it’s for one reason; the book uses an arranged marriage/inappropriate affair plot, which is not one of my favorites. Moreno-Garcia uses it well and it’s the right plot for this story… I’m just not the ideal audience for it.
Carlota is a teenager when changes come to her faded rancho home. Her mother died in or shortly after childbirth; the picture of the beautiful blond woman in her father’s bedroom is not her mother, but his wife, who also died in childbirth before Carlota was born. Carlota grows up knowing only her father, the housekeeper Ramona, two servants, Lupe and Cachito (who are like her siblings) the mayordomo and the hybrids. While her father shelters her, demanding unquestioning obedience, he also teaches her to read and includes her in science and philosophy because he needs help with his creations. He nurtures her beauty because his plan is to marry her off to a wealthy man who will fund his research without demands. He also regularly doses her with medicine to keep her from falling back into the sickly state she faced as an infant and child.
When the original mayordomo betrays him, Moreau fires him and brings in Montgomery Laughton, an embittered alcoholic Brit with nothing to lose. After his initial shock, Laughton adjusts to the hybrids and develops relationships with them. He falls into unrequited love with Carlota. Then Eduardo Lizalde, son of the patron, arrives unexpectedly, and sets dire events into motion. Carlota, infatuated with a handsome young man who flatters her constantly, doesn’t see the danger at first, and while Laughton does, he’s helpless to prevent it.
Moreno-Garcia’s descriptions are lush, and the book is filled with heightened emotion—not just anger or fear (there is plenty of that); but the intensity of “first love,” both the enhanced sensitivity toward the object of affection and the feeling of swoony surrender. Laughton expresses frustration extremely well. The family secrets that are revealed at the end of the book will not surprise any reader, but the characters’ reactions to those secrets are done well too.
Carlota is portrayed as an innocent because of her upbringing, but she is honest. In several scenes, her simple honesty is a powerful weapon against the forces surrounding her. My favorite character was the hybrid servant Lupe. Lupe has her own agenda; she sees things Carlota does not, and her motivations are believable. The few scenes with the hybrids emphasize that they are people.
The Maya uprising becomes an important element in the later part of the book, but this story is basically about Carlota. Once she discovers the truth about her birth, Carlota changes quickly from a troubled, innocent girl to a confident, self-assured young woman, secure in her own sexuality, and a woman with a plan. I never actually saw that transformation happen on the page.
I recommend The Daughter of Doctor Moreau for all the things I expect from this writer; beautiful, perfectly directed prose, fascinating settings described exquisitely, characters who act in believably human ways, even when those actions are unflattering to them. I wish I could have seen Carlota change into the woman she is at the end of the book, but the positives outweigh that loss. This book’s a keeper.
A final thought: Is it science fiction, though? If The Island of Doctor Moreau is science fiction, then so is this.