Dr. Evelyn Caldwell is a geneticist specializing in cloning, at the pinnacle of her career: The Echo Wife (2021) begins with a banquet at which she is given a prestigious award. At the same time, Evelyn is at a low point in her personal life. She’s a prickly loner and a workaholic, and her husband Nathan has recently left her for another woman. What makes matters far worse is that Nathan, a far less brilliant scientist than Evelyn, has stolen Evelyn’s research to clone Evelyn herself to grow himself a new wife, Martine, using programming methods to make Martine a softer, more submissive version of Evelyn. Nathan even finds a way around the sterility built into the foundation of the cloning process. Martine is pregnant, while Evelyn had adamantly refused to have a child in the earlier days of her marriage to Nathan.
So Evelyn lashes out at Martine, using her cruelest words, and it raises enough questions in Martine’s mind that later that evening she asks Nathan whether he cares what she wants for herself. In the resulting violent fight between Nathan and Martine, Nathan ends up dead. Martine has no one to turn to but Evelyn, and Evelyn reluctantly helps because her entire career could be torpedoed if the truth about Martine comes out. So between them they clean up the mess and bury Nathan’s body, but now there’s a new problem: how are they going to explain Nathan’s disappearance? Well, Evelyn is the world’s foremost expert in cloning …
On one level, Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife is a science fiction thriller, a compelling read that kept me glued to my chair until far into the night. There are some shocking but logical plot twists, and unnerving disclosures about all of the main characters. Flashbacks to Evelyn’s childhood, especially her interactions with her intellectually gifted but abusive father, help to show why she’s developed into a cold, career-obsessed person with a venomous tongue. It also becomes apparent to Evelyn that, though she was fully aware of Nathan’s tendency to cut corners, she never really knew who he was. Meanwhile, Martine is struggling with many of the limitations that Nathan has programmed into her, and Evelyn isn’t sure whether to be pleased or alarmed when Martine is able to bypass her conditioning.
The soft science fictional aspects of The Echo Wife are the weakest part of the plot. Conveniently, Evelyn’s cloning technology allows her to create a fully adult clone in a hundred days, one that is physically indistinguishable from the person who was cloned … at least, after some physical “conditioning” is done on the clone’s body to give it the scars, broken bones, etc. to match the original person. (Evelyn takes an unholy amount of pleasure in conditioning the Nathan clone’s body and having Martine participate in that process.) Previous recordings taken of the original person’s brain — again, it’s suspiciously opportune that Evelyn has an older recording of Nathan’s brain — are sufficient to implant a full set of memories into the clone’s brain, including physical abilities that one might think would take a clone much longer to master, but somehow at the same time the scientist is able to modify those recordings to emphasize certain personality traits and memories and remove others. Gailey tosses around a few scientific phrases like “telomere financing” and “cognitive mapping,” but still, there’s an awful lot of handwaving surrounding the science and methodologies of cloning.
What does strike me as brilliant, however, are the psychological aspects of The Echo Wife. The main characters, as mentioned above, are all deeply flawed, but their shortcomings as well as their positive personality traits make them fascinating and multilayered personalities. There are also larger themes and issues woven into the story. The humanity and human rights of clones are one key element: Clones are viewed by Evelyn and the world generally as mere “specimens,” disposable for any or no reason (and in fact they are almost always disposed of after a few months), despite the fact that they are living, intelligent beings. But the more Evelyn gets to know Martine, the less she is able to rationalize this worldview … and yet so much of her career depends on it. Another message, perhaps more subtle, concerns patriarchy and its evils, displayed by both Nathan, who blithely disposes of women who don’t meet his needs, and by Evelyn’s father, who physically abuses females who don’t obey him.
When I first read The Echo Wife, I was caught up in the suspense aspect of the novel and the twists of the plot. On my second read, I found it equally gripping, but for completely different reasons, more connected to the themes and the internal struggles and psyches of Evelyn and Martine. It’s an unusual, thoughtful and unsettling thriller, well worth the read.
As Tadiana explains so succinctly, The Echo Wife is gripping and thought-provoking, especially as Gailey reveals more and more of Evelyn and Martine’s individualities despite the simple fact that they are genetically identical. Evelyn’s view that clones are “specimens” and ultimately disposable when no longer useful has some uncomfortable similarities to how she treats everyone she comes into contact with, even lab assistants she’s known for years; Martine’s gradual establishment of who she can be, who she wants to be, within and without the boundaries of her conditioning, is a fascinating journey. The cautious way the two women interact and confront whether they can trust one another is the primary reason I couldn’t put this book down; Gailey nailed the pair’s relationship and its evolutions perfectly. (Evelyn’s insistence that she is not a monster is interesting and informative, to say the least.)
Nathan’s character is weaker, not only because that’s how Evelyn views him but because his off-scene actions and the tension of how he might react to events throughout the second half of the novel onward create far more tension than his milquetoast presence can provide. Logistically, I’m left with questions about how Nathan expected to get away with everything he’s been up to, how he circumnavigated the supposedly-airtight sterility protocol despite being a clearly inferior scientist, and a few other key issues. There were some plot threads that I expected to be resolved and was disappointed that they were left hanging; there were others that Gailey sewed up neatly. I minded the hand-waving scientific aspects less than Tadiana, as it generally hews to a firm internal logic, which is all I’m ever hoping for regardless of whether a novel is grounded in science or magic.
As a mystery/thriller, The Echo Wife delivers on the promise of its concept, and the main plot certainly kept me guessing. There’s a subplot involving Evelyn’s parents which is more by-the-numbers, but I like how Gailey subverts the idea that the past will be inescapably echoed in the present and future. Another strong effort from Gailey, and I continue to look forward to reading their work.
I was the last one of the three of us to finish The Echo Wife, so Jana and Tadiana had to put up with my increasingly capslocky emails as I got deeper and deeper into the book. As a thriller, The Echo Wife certainly delivers that everything-just-keeps-getting-worse unbearable tension that makes the genre work.
Evelyn was fascinating to me as a character, even though I often didn’t like her much. The way she fought so hard against becoming her browbeaten mother, only to find herself exhibiting characteristics of her abusive father instead, was believable and chilling. So, too, was the ease with which she slipped into taking Martine’s programmed domestic tendencies for granted, because, of course, life is so much easier when you have someone taking care of the home for you. I thought more than once about the essay “I Want a Wife” by Judy Brady Syfers, which was written in 1971 and still holds relevance today.
There was one big scientific loose end that appeared very early on as a major plot point, and I was sure the answer to that question would be one of the novel’s reveals, but it was left unresolved. Like both Tadiana and Jana, though, I was gripped by the evolution of Evelyn’s moral compass as she first rejects, then begins to come to terms with, the idea that clones are people, and have been people all along.
After the steadily escalating shocks of the book, it ends in a way that is quieter than one might expect, yet thought-provoking. The ending might be idyllic, or might be ominous, depending on what you think of the character growth and whether the old dysfunctional patterns can be broken.
The Echo Wife kept me riveted as a thriller should, as well as invested in the character development of both Evelyn and Martine. Everything I’ve read so far by Gailey has been compelling on the psychological level and this is no exception.
“The way she fought so hard against becoming her browbeaten mother, only to find herself exhibiting characteristics of her abusive father instead, was believable and chilling. So, too, was the ease with which she slipped into taking Martine’s programmed domestic tendencies for granted, because, of course, life is so much easier when you have someone taking care of the home for you.” <--- That's it exactly, Kelly, and why I think the ending reads ... well, perhaps not ominous, but at the very least unsettling. And of course this concept is reflected in the title of the book itself as well. Great job, everyone!
People have been saying “Orphan Black meets [insert thriller of your choice]” about this book and now I see why. Great reviews, you all!
“Jana and Tadiana had to put up with my increasingly capslocky emails as I got deeper and deeper into the book.”
– I loved that whole email exchange between us (especially the all-caps parts) and will treasure it in my heart forever. (I would’ve copied the all-caps part here because it was so funny, but, spoilers.)
Aww! <3 I do love getting to scream about books behind the scenes with y'all!
It’s always so fun and rewarding!