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BOOK REVIEW

A journey of personal evolution

By Nicole Cammorata
Globe Staff / June 11, 2010

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There are certain memories we recall when trying to make sense of the person we’ve become: the breakup we never got over, scenes from childhood, the trip that changed our worldview.

Nino Ricci’s “The Origin of Species’’ is an achingly honest look at how our life choices get stacked up to form the picture of who we are whether we like it or not. Ricci’s dry, sardonic prose is sharp, with the cadence of natural thought that tumbles forward without getting lost.

The novel, whose title is an obvious allusion to the masterwork of Charles Darwin, looks at the evolution of Alex Fratarcangeli, a 30-something doctoral candidate in Montreal struggling to pull himself together and finish his dissertation despite a lifetime of regrets and failures.

When we meet Alex it’s apparent that he doesn’t much like the person he’s become, an insight he fights with but can’t quite acknowledge. Even during his therapy sessions with Dr. Klein, whom he started seeing following a breakup, Alex avoids the subjects most burdening him, lying just to get through the hour.

The main action of the book takes place over the course of a year, from 1986 to 1987, in Montreal. The time is post-Chernobyl and in the midst of the HIV/AIDS panic. The mood is vaguely apocalyptic.

The chapters are rife with flashbacks to the years previous: a failed relationship, a life-altering trip to the Galapagos in 1980, and backpacking through Europe in his early 20s.

One such flashback is the unraveling of his torturous, long-term, on-again, off-again relationship with Liz. Alex chews over the guilt he experienced after Liz became pregnant and she decided to get an abortion — something he didn’t try to talk her out of because it’s what he wanted anyway, though he cloaked his feelings in a shroud of ambiguity. And then there is the remorse he feels over the way he forced himself on Liz in a way that can only be described as rape amid the final throes of their relationship. These memories gnaw at him, but at the same time he can’t seem to bring himself to acknowledge the truth of his personal responsibility, pushing it to the recesses of his mind to let it fester.

As a foil to his destructive relationship with Liz is the one he has with Ingrid, a woman Alex met while traveling through Sweden years before. Ingrid is a single mother living a quiet, suburban life with her two children. And despite an age gap of almost a decade, the two possess a kind of magnetic pull on each other, which draws Alex back for subsequent visits over the years.

During one visit, Ingrid becomes pregnant with their child, but withholds this from Alex for five years until finally confessing in a letter that they have a son. Alex comes to view the relationship with Ingrid as an opportunity to redeem himself by becoming the father he failed to be before, so he considers a return to Sweden to work things out.

Before he can leave, however, he has an ambitious dissertation to worry about, one that he can’t seem to finish. Inspired by his trip to the Galapagos, Alex’s topic is the intersection of science and the arts, exploring literature and intellectual thought through the lens of Darwin’s theory of evolution. The unfinished work seems emblematic of Alex’s inability to see his own role in his personal evolution.

In Alex, Ricci has crafted a flawed, complex character who’s hard to love but impossible to hate. There is space for redemption with Alex — we want to see him succeed. We see in him our own worst fears for ourselves — of being a subpar version of the self we’d imagined; of being a letdown.

There’s a biting truth to Ricci’s stunning, cerebral look at the randomness of experience and how our life choices shape us. Like Darwin’s finches, we are affected by the conditions of our lives. But unlike them, we can decide how we will respond — to a point, anyway.

Nicole Cammorata, an arts and entertainment producer for Boston.com, can be reached at ncammorata@boston.com.

THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES

By Nino Ricci

Other, 496 pp., paperback, $16.95