By Camille DeAngelis
Shaye Areheart, 350 pp., $24
By Nicholas Christopher
Dial, 307 pp., illustrated, $25
By Fiona Neill
Riverhead, 337 pp., $24.95
A scientist finds herself part of a biogenetically enhanced love triangle. A scholar discovers his own identity as he searches for an ancient book. An organizationally challenged young mother contemplates infidelity. These three stories have nothing in common, but they're all nicely executed and promise diverting summer reading.
Cloning your relatives seems like asking for trouble. In Camille DeAngelis's time-bending first novel, "Mary Modern," Lucy Morrigan, a young biogenetic researcher, gets more than she bargained for when she clones her own grandmother, who then becomes a formidable romantic rival. This gothic love story is weird, but it's entertaining and skillfully written.
Lucy works at a university in Massachusetts and lives in the decaying family mansion . She shares the house with her boyfriend, Gray, a classics scholar, and five graduate students. Lucy longs for a baby, but a rare allergy prevents her from conceiving a child. After finding a bloodstained apron in the attic she decides to try to clone her grandmother Mary, an accomplished photographer, dead for many years. Lucy undergoes an emergency cesarean six months into her pregnancy and delivers a clone the size of a 4-year-old who, nestled in a simulated womb in the mansion's basement, soon grows into a 22-year-old woman. Mary awakes, recognizes her surroundings, and thinks that it's 1929 and she's just returned from her honeymoon with her husband, Teddy. She has no memory of her husband's death, her children, her photography. As she adjusts to her new life she draws closer to Gray, who falls in love with her. But Mary is obsessed with Teddy, and tries to persuade Lucy to clone him.
"Mary Modern" has obvious echoes of "Frankenstein." While Mary Shelley's classic warned against the potential excesses of science, DeAngelis's novel takes on political and religious forces that aim to suppress scientific innovation. There's a subplot involving a group of religious fanatics who want to shut down the university's biogenetic research. One of them tries to blackmail Lucy into cloning Jesus. Mostly, though, this is a love story that raises some interesting questions about love's limits, and its possibilities.
Novels involving perilous searches for lost ancient relics, artifacts, manuscripts, codes, formulas, and what-have-you clog publishing's pipelines. Nicholas Christopher's "The Bestiary" is something different. Christopher is a compelling storyteller and writer. His novel is not a thriller, a mystery, a horror story, a mystical journey. It's an old-fashioned quest, in which our hero, Xeno Atlas, finds himself while searching for an ancient text, lost for many centuries, the "Caravan Bestiary," a compilation of the animals that didn't make it onto Noah's ark. Among these fantastic creatures were the centaur, half man, half horse; the griffin, offspring of an eagle and a lion; the zaratan, a sea turtle so large sailors would mistake it for an island.
Xeno's mother died in childbirth; his emotionally distant seaman father was seldom home. Sent off to boarding school at 15, Xeno meets a history teacher who tells him about the "Caravan Bestiary." Finding the legendary text becomes an obsession that parallels Xeno's personal search for his elusive father. Later, at Harvard, then during a tour of duty in the military in Vietnam, Xeno keeps returning to his quest for it. He settles in Paris and scours the libraries and museums of Europe for clues to its whereabouts. His research turns up links to the Black Death, a doge of Venice, Gnostic heretics, Magellan, the Knights Hospitallers, and Lord Byron, among other historical events and people. "The Bestiary" is a fascinating novel, stuffed with all sorts of arcane information.
Fiona Neill wrings every last drop of humor out of Lucy Sweeney , a chronically disorganized young mother tempted to step off the domestic treadmill and into an affair in "Slummy Mummy." With its pastel cover, the novel looks like chick lit, but it's something more, a deftly executed domestic comedy. Neill writes a column of the same name for the London Times magazine. Her writing burbles along effortlessly. Her comic timing is excellent.
Lucy has given up being a television news producer to be a full-time mother to three young sons. Her husband, Tom, a nit-picking architect, isn't much help apart from arranging the spices in alphabetical order and giving unsolicited advice: "You need systems, Lucy, then life will become so much simpler." They live in "upper tax-bracket territory," a London neighborhood they can't afford. They're deeply in debt. The laundry piles up, there are school lunches to be made, children to be picked up and delivered, meals to be cooked, messes large and small to be cleaned up.
Lucy's unmarried girlfriends, Cathy and Emma, pursue unconventional sex. Emma is having an affair with a married father of four; Cathy trolls for men on the Internet. Lucy and Tom haven't had sex for two months. She tells her friends that she doesn't even have time for sexual fantasies. But that's not true. At her children's school is an attractive man, writer Robert Bass, code-named "Sexy Domesticated Dad." A flirtation leads to complications. "Slummy Mummy" is more than a funny story about a woman teetering on the verge of chaos. It's also a sharply observed comedy about the pressures and pretensions of the upper middle class.
Diane White writes every month about new light and popular fiction.