The Echo Wife — Echo, Echooo, Echoooooooooo

Yeah yeah, the subtitle is easy pickings, but sometimes it’s the simple things in life that are the best. It’s very hard to come up with a pun that combines the act of echoing and the myriad themes Sarah Gailey has packed into this book. There are questions about the debate of nature vs nurture, and an extreme muddying of the waters. You have traumas past and present building characters with insatiable levels of drive in one direction or another. So instead of agonizing over the title, I chose to dig into the book itself. The Echo Wife, by the aforementioned Sarah Gailey, is a dark journey through the psyche of a woman that also manages to blur the lines of nature versus nurture in clever ways.

Evelyn, the main protagonist and only perspective, is a renowned scientist in the field of cloning. She has just been presented with a major award for her advances in the field, and yet her husband is too busy having an affair to care about her accomplishments. But it’s not the average run of the mill affair. Martine, her husband’s new girlfriend, is a clone of Evelyn grown and raised in secret by her husband to be everything Evelyn was not. Obedient. Patient. Gentle. Martine oddly wants to form a sort of friendship with Evelyn, and Evelyn obliges by having a meeting over tea, and having Martine over at her place. One night she receives a terrible phone call from Martine: her ex husband is dead, and Martine has killed him. In order to hide the secret of Martine, and the death of her ex husband and keep her standing within her field, Evelyn hatches a plan that will require her particularly useful set of skills.

While the premise sounded promising, I had a hard time getting into this book. Mostly, I think I had trouble with the main character, Evelyn, and her blunt anger and career driven attitude. It’s less that I find these traits distasteful, it’s just her inner monologue became a repetitive jackhammer in my brain, and threatened to become the sole way in which I saw her character. While it serves as a sturdy foundation for further exploration of the book’s themes later on, I had a hard time getting past the upfront and ever present repetition of who Evelyn was to herself. However, while these aspects of Evelyn don’t really soften through the progression of the book, Gailey highlights their omnipresence within Evelyn’s life in interesting ways as the story goes on. Her counterpart, Martine, is a great foil, and really helps dig into Evelyn’s brusque manners in exciting and compelling ways. Martine dilutes some of Evelyn’s more obtuse qualities, not through action but by taking up space within the story. She’s too polite, goes out of her way to make people feel comfortable, but also shows some of the incessant drive that fuels Evelyn. She has her own dreams and desires even if they are mostly programmed by Evelyn’s husband. I admire Gailey’s ability to make two people who are so different feel so similar at the same time, without resorting to superficial contrivances.

The story itself is weirdly fun. Gailey presents a pretty horrific and disturbing scenario with a quirky sensibility. There are points where it feels like they wrote a fifties television show pilot, complete with a “shrewish” woman learning the ropes from her perfect housewife clone. I wouldn’t say I laughed, but there is sinister comedy at play that keeps the story oddly light, while it explores some shadowy territory. That feeling stops, however, during Evelyn’s flashbacks to her upbringing. These chapters are tough pills to swallow, and while they were never a joy to read, they were compelling in their own right. Her relationship with both her parents and the interactions she has with them are haunting in many different ways. Gailey does an excellent job of keeping the information low in these sections, focusing on the memories a child would have developed, instead of viewing them as Evelyn would as an adult. They are free of rumination and judgement, giving you a window into her past with the shades half drawn.

Though it takes some time for the wallpaper to be stripped from the intricate mosaic below the surface, the mosaic is horrifying and breathtakingly beautiful at the same time. Gailey juggles concepts of free will and human programming, while humming a mashup of I Love Lucy and The Twilight Zone. It’s a strange novel, but Gailey patiently allows the snowball of a reveal to build up. Obviously, nature vs nurture comes up, but they throw a wrench in the gears by confusing the two. What does it mean when the programming is a form of nurture, but meant to create a specific nature? It’s further complicated by the memories that Evelyn has of her childhood as they dive into how she becomes who she is. Gailey plays it well too, not diving too much into cause and effect, instead allowing the reader to parse the memories like they would their own life. They are written as if you’re asking yourself, “why am I the way that I am,” while diving into the packets of neurons that make up your past to find those answers, without really finding specific events. It’s exciting and dreadful at the same time because all it does is bring you to one terrifying answer, you’re unique, but not special.

Gailey has written a fun and dark exploration of what makes us who we are. I am glad I stuck with it, but I will admit it was a tough go for the first fifth of the book. It never really picks up great speed, however, they are patient, and I recommend you be patient too. There are times the book threatens to be a thriller, but it never really follows through, but I think it’s better for it. If you’re looking for a brisk, weird and uncanny dive into the nature of identity through a funhouse mirror, Echo Wife should be on your to TBR.

Rating: The Echo Wife – 7.5/10
-Alex

 

Upright Women Wanted – Standing Tall

Upright Women Wanted By Sarah Gailey starts off strong with its main character, Esther, stowed away in a librarian’s book wagon. She’s a runaway in a future dystopian American southwest. Esther is running away from a marriage arranged by her father. The man she was set to marry, was originally going to marry her best friend, and secret love, Beatriz. Beatriz had been found with resistance propaganda, otherwise known as “unapproved materials”, and summarily executed. The old West is back again, but this time with even more small-town tyranny aided by an oppressive military focused on keeping order and restoring “traditional family values.” All the while, a group of upstanding women of reputation, the Librarians, distributes resistance literature under the guise of providing “traditional” education town to town in their roving wagons. 

There is something special contained within Upright Women Wanted, but it doesn’t quite reach its full potential. Gailey has certainly built an immersive world, filled with details that make it feel alive. The casual way stereotypical western movie-speak has infiltrated daily conversation is fun and feels very natural. Gailey leaves no stone unturned as they litter the novella with descriptions that feel old-timey, but with a modern sense of vigor. Every bit of the world-building feels purposeful, and while I wanted more, I can understand the decision to keep some aspects of the world vague. For instance, how this future came to be doesn’t really feel as important as in other dystopias, which felt refreshing. Overall it feels more tangible, as if it just sort of happened while no one was looking, because the oppressive aspects of that culture exist today. 

The characters are a big selling point to me beyond the western trappings. They leap off the page with a dynamism and loudness I was not expecting in a novella. The people that Esther encounters fully understand the world that they live in, and have chosen a life that allows them to skirt the edges. They have to, as they are all queer, unable to live the life they want, for otherwise they’d be hanged by the society that requires heterosexuality. Gailey is not subtle about this either, and it’s bracing. I loved learning about their struggles, but I really loved how they have not succumbed to their fears and taken the fight head-on. There is a lushness to their lives that stands in stark contrast to the open and empty desert around them. Cye, a librarian in training, in particular stands out as they have to lead a dual life since they are non-binary. They consistently remind Esther to refer to them as “she” within towns so as not to give them away. That it was something that their entire well being hinged upon struck me deeply. 

While there is not a lot of time to get deep within the novella, Gailey has added a richness to a straight forward story. It both makes me want more of this world, and satisfied with the story already told. If Gailey never goes back to this world, Esther and Cye along with the other women on their journey have taught me there is always a way to fight for your future, whether it’s in plain view or in the cracks that appear in civilization. 

Upright Women Wanted: 7.5/10

-Alex