Sara Flannery Murphy
reviewed by Lou Jacobs
A thought-provoking and compelling mystery that explores female power and the bonds of sisterhood with a touch of magic. Nine “miracle girls” are conceived without male DNA and raised in an experimental commune, the Homestead, in the 1970s.
The world has mixed feelings about their existence—however, the most prevailing is outrage. The possibility of parthenogenesis is certainly known in small invertebrates, some insects like bees, wasps and ants, and even certain lizards and reptiles, but not in humans. Unfertilized eggs are not considered viable and fail to maturate. However, Dr Joseph Belanger who has toiled in obscurity and some would say, “quackery” has somehow unlocked parthenogenesis and is catapulted to fame when the nine women of the commune start delivering these “miracle babies”. All of the women have given birth without genetic material from a man. They have no father, either genetically or biologically. All of which unfortunately leads to a quagmire of moral and political outrage with theologians and politicians weighing in. There were people who wanted them vanquished like vampires and witches. burning all at the stake. The first baby, Josephine Morrow, is known as “Girl One” and initially is heralded as a scientific breakthrough, only later to become embroiled in ignorance and hate. In the ensuing turmoil the Homestead and Dr Belanger continue to be verbally attacked until a suspicious fire destroys the commune, and among the wreckage are two barely recognizable bodies. Dr Belanger and a child. This creates a diaspora of the mothers and daughters across the country into apparent obscurity.
Nothing has been written in ten years about the Homestead or the surviving mothers and daughters until another mysterious fire occurs at the home of Margaret Morrow — Mother One.
No body is found, and her purse and car remain at the scene. No-one seems to be overly concerned …. but, the media does rehash the past, as expected. Josephine has just finished her first year of medical school, where she intends on studying reproductive medicine and continue the work of Dr Belanger. His research and method of achieving parthenogenesis went up in flames, never to be replicated. She returns home to investigate the disappearance of her mother. Her only uncovered clue at the scene is a note bearing the name and phone number of journalist Thomas Abbott, who her mother contacted days before the fire. Josephine sets out on a journey across the country to contact the other mothers and “her sisters” Perhaps they will shed light on not only her mother’s disappearance, but also the mystery behind her past and the commune. However, at every stage of the way she encounters people determined to obstruct her investigation and keep the secrets locked away forever. Initially she is joined by Abbott and later two of the daughters, Cate, and Isabel. Incrementally the true nature of the daughters and consequences of the commune life are exposed.
The unexpected strengths and unique abilities of each daughter are explored, and seemingly brought to light and maturation by the union of the sisters.
Sara Flannery Murphy proves to be a masterful storyteller as she weaves together a propulsive and twisted narrative that escalates with tension and thought-provoking meaning. Explored are feminist themes without being preachy or detrimental to the evocative mystery.
Although the brilliant mystery is plot driven, Murphy expertly unfolds into the fray multiple complex characters with flaws, foibles and yet, overriding virtue and persistence. Overall, the theme is not invested with the goal of doing away with fatherhood, but rather celebrating the importance of female choice and control. This gem will certainly appeal to those who enjoyed the oeuvre of Joanna Russ and Margaret Atwood.
Thanks to NetGalley and Frarrar, Straus and Giroux publishing for providing an Uncorrected Proof in exchange for an honest review.