What I Read This Week

Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife is one of those books I would never have picked up were it not for the Tournament of Books. Alas, I wish I could say I’m glad I stumbled onto it but in fact this book and I did not get along. It is the story of a scientist, Evelyn Caldwell, whose pathbreaking research into clones has led to awards and acclaim. But her personal life is unhappy — her husband Nathan has left her for another woman. Not just any other woman, but a literal Evelyn clone. And — we learn in the first few chapters — the clone is pregnant, and Nathan is dead.

It’s an intriguing premise, if a bit on the soap operatic side. But I could not get invested in this novel, because I never believed in any of the characters. Martine and Seyed and Nathan all behave in ways that advance the plot but don’t make sense. The world-building, too, was puzzling and inconsistent. But what frustrated me most of all were the pains the author took to tell me what to think about Evelyn’s actions. She might as well have put up a neon sign that read “THIS IS A BAD SITUATION.”

In fairness, I do think Gailey nails Evelyn’s voice and personality. She is the only character with much development at all, but Gailey seems to thoroughly understand her. Still, if you want to read a novel about personhood and identity, I would choose Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go or Klara and the Sun before this one.

The Confession of Copeland Cane, by Keenan Norris, also frustrated me. It is the story of a Black California teenager who is recruited by a prep school. He navigates the social and educational hierarchies of the school while also negotiating aggressive policing, incipient eviction, and ultimately political protests.

The novel is well-written but I’m not sure what it’s bringing to the table that is new. It’s supposedly set in the “very near future,” but it might as well be the present for all I could tell. I liked Copeland well enough, and I like Jacqueline, who provides the frame of the book, but I didn’t feel that I got new insight on structural racism or police states or the failures of the media; I would just as soon reread The New Jim Crow. I don’t want to be too hard on the book; it may be the victim of my dystopia fatigue as I read through the Tournament of Books longlist, which this year features one dark take on modern times after another. I do think Keenan Norris is massively talented.

David Green’s The Hundred Years War: A People’s History was a refreshing distraction from the other books this week. Granted, the story of peasants dealing with the Black Death and the miseries of war wasn’t exactly uplifting, but it was a bit of a relief to be reminded that pandemics and political turmoil aren’t confined to twenty-first century America. Each chapter in this history takes up a different topic — ranging from peasants to kings to women to prisoners of war — and describes how the subject was impacted by the Hundred Years’ War. The book is filled with interesting facts and people. Some were new to me: for example, my heart really went out to Charles of Orleans, who spent twenty-five years as a political prisoner. Others I had heard of but only half-remembered. I feel certain I read some of Christine de Pizan’s work in college but I now really want to learn more about her.

For this most part, I found this book riveting and informative, in particular the final chapter on the national identities that were forged in the crucible of the war. Green does have a slightly annoying habit of repeating his main points several times throughout a chapter — well-connected prisoners could be used as political bargaining chips, who knew? — but this is a forgivable flaw in a book that made me reflect on the roots of historical change, and served to remind me that humanity has survived the likes of the Trumpists before, and will no doubt do so again.