While I wouldn’t say I was hyped for The Echo Wife, you might call me intrigued. A story about a woman whose husband cheats on her with her own clone? I don’t think I’ve read that before, and it’s exactly the kind of scenario I would expect human cloning to lead to. It took me a while to get into the book (just Gailey’s writing style), but eventually I was hooked on the relationship developing between Evelyn and Martine. The ending is truly something else. I don’t know if Gailey is an evil genius or a disturbed evil genius, but she’s definitely evil and definitely a genius.
Evelyn is an award-winning researcher into human cloning. She has come this far with her husband, Nathan, but now they’re splitting up. When the book starts, Evelyn knows why this is happening—he has cloned her, using the tech they developed together, and named the clone Martine, and conditioned this clone to be more pliant, more “wifely” than Evelyn ever could be. But Gailey brings us to this revelation gradually, kind of the slow ride up the roller coaster before you reach the top, at which point she lets rip with what I can only describe as a very twisted thriller.
Though cloning is essential to this book’s story, this isn’t really a book about cloning. The Echo Wife is about abuse, and in particular, Gailey focuses on the ways in which men often try to mould the women in their lives into specific roles. Cloning is just a useful science-fictional novum that helps Gailey explore this idea in a very literal way: if you’re not satisfied with your wife, why not make a better version of her? Wifey 2.0.
Before we talk about Nathan, however, let’s talk about Evelyn. Because it’s clear almost immediately that she has more trauma than just her marriage to Nathan to deal with. The book opens on a reception being held, one in which she has won an award. So she is laced up tight in a dress she can barely breathe in and attending an event she doesn’t want to be at because that is what one does if one wants more grant funding next year. At this event she encounters a former mentor, another woman, and Evelyn as the first person narrator confides in us that this woman taught Evelyn how to deal with the misogyny of grad school and postdocs in science. When I was reading this chapter, I admit to some impatience—bring on the clone, I thought!—but in hindsight, this chapter is important. Gailey is establishing from the beginning Evelyn’s awareness of how patriarchy affects her work life.
In the same way, flashbacks to Evelyn’s childhood show us how her abusive relationship with her father affected her development. He expected her to be unseen, out of the way, except when he chose to make time for her, and only then if she could conform to his definition of brilliance. The message Gailey gives us is clear: Evelyn is not new to abusive relationships. This has been a pattern her whole life, sadly something that is true for a lot of people (and women in particular).
So then we come to Nathan. The most interesting thing about him? He’s barely in the book. By this I mean that Nathan barely appears on page and talks to the characters. Evelyn tells us a lot about him, relates details about their past together. But we show up at Martine and Nathan’s house after Nathan is gone. Near the end of the story, when Evelyn explains the “arrangement” that they come to, she again keeps us at arm’s length. So Nathan is arguably not really a character in this book. He is a bogeyman in Evelyn’s psyche. I don’t mean to suggest that she is exaggerating his awfulness, but I want to highlight this because I think it is an important choice on Gailey’s part. There are really only 2 characters we spend much time with here, Evelyn and Martine, and Evelyn is the only one talking directly to us. Yes, it is possibly Evelyn and Martine are unreliable and making up the entire thing—but then, I would argue that undermines the entire plot, so I don’t see that as a particularly useful reading. This means we literally must believe women about their abusers instead of looking toward external sources for validation.
The other fascinating interplay in this book is obviously between Evelyn and Martine. They are clones, yet they aren’t identical. Evelyn has Opinions about Martine, of course, many of them initially negative because she resents the way Martine has so easily filled the void in Nathan’s life that Evelyn never quite filled. Yet she also pities Martine, because that is the only reason for Martine to exist. There’s a whole other story here, one from Martine’s point of view, that would be just as fascinating, I suspect. But part of what makes The Echo Wife so compelling is, as I discussed above, the way Gailey limits the scope of the narrative. We don’t get to see Martine’s confrontations with Nathan and the fallout—we just get to see Evelyn coming over after the fact. We don’t get to see Martine digging up the garden and discovering Nathan’s little secrets—again, we see Evelyn observing Martine after the fact.
So, on the one hand, you have this dark and disturbing thriller where Gailey uses cloning to highlight how men abuse women, and how sometimes they will literally replace us if they think they can get away with it and be happier as a result. On the other hand, that ending!
When I put this book down, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the ending—and that’s always a good sign. Overall, I think it’s because Gailey has succeeded at creating an unlikable female protagonist who is nonetheless sympathetic. That is to say, I really don’t like Evelyn—she clearly hasn’t dealt with her trauma in a healthy way, and it shows in how she treats other people. At the same time, I sympathize with her and Martine’s problems, and I want them to succeed rather than being caught and going to jail. Yet the solution that Evelyn comes up with … huh. It’s deliciously complex but also disturbing; she has essentially manipulated everyone else involved to arrive at the optimal solution for herself while convincing herself (genuinely, I think) that it’s best for the others too.
I also think it’s interesting that while Gailey acknowledges there are ethical dilemmas regarding human cloning, she also basically sidesteps them. There is one notable point where Martine holds a metaphorical mirror up to Evelyn and points out the problematic way Evelyn has rationalized what she does. Nevertheless, if you are looking for a book that really engages with the ethics of creating humans from whole cloth, this probably isn’t for you. Not because it doesn’t present the problems—Martine’s very existence is ethically problematic—but because it never quite holds Evelyn (or, actually, Nathan) to account for the positions they take.
I guess all I can say without going into spoilers is that this is a book about flawed people doing flawed things. Some of their issues are down to patriarchy, some are the result of trauma, and others are just bad decisions. At the end of the day, no one should be forced to stay in an abusive situation. No one deserves or should have the ability to adjust another person until they are their ideal version of a mate. The Echo Wife grapples with abusive relationships and what it means to love someone in a very unique and thoughtful way. There were moments that missed the mark for me, and our protagonist is a difficult person to like. Nevertheless, Gailey’s writing and storytelling left me very satisfied, and I’m glad I let the description of this book intrigue me into reading it so quickly. (Also glad my library had a copy!)