Pop quiz: you are an award-winning researcher, leading the field in human cloning. Your husband has stolen your research to clone a version of you he finds easier to live with. Do you help her cover up his murder?
If you already yelled YES KILL THE BASTARD, then The Echo Wife is the delightfully nasty, perfectly observed thriller for you. If you didn’t, read The Echo Wife anyway – because it is absolutely one of the best books published in 2021 – and give Sarah Gailey a chance to convince you. It’s a clever concept abundant in possibilities and Gailey gives it razored edges from the start.
Evelyn is an exceptional scientist, her work on human cloning second to none. She focuses on the commercial applications: her employer seeks to create a marketplace for the rich and endangered, selling them clones for those occasions that just aren’t safe or convenient for them to attend in person. Decoys. Body doubles. Cannon fodder. Temporary citizens.
The ethics are universally agreed: clones are short-lived solutions for specific situations. You can’t have two of you running around (imagine the look on my face when I saw the trailer for Dual, an equally dystopian but very different take on how this might play out). A clone is perfectly conditioned to play its part – right down to every badly-healed broken bone, every little scar, every wound, carefully inflicted in the lab – and disposed of once it has fulfilled its purpose.
Any sympathy I initially had for Evelyn – a woman who has sacrificed to get to the top of her field, only to be betrayed by a husband who wanted a more traditional wife – dissolved quickly. She is professionally and personally ruthless. She is deeply selfish. She never apologises (it’s a sign of weakness). She never backs down (always go for the kill, never look back). She commits endlessly cruelties on a daily basis, engaging in ethical gymnastics to justify it (clones aren’t human. She neutralizes specimens, she doesn’t kill people).
Unlikeable is an understatement, but Evelyn is also unexpectedly relatable. She suffers from social anxiety. She hates small talk. She has as little interest in children as she does in trying to patch things up with her treacherous husband. She is capable of reflexive kindness, even if she often justifies it to herself in other ways. She is a compelling point of view character whose morality only grows more questionable the more you get to know her – which is perfect, as it means it’s never clear what course of action she will decide is in her own best interest.
The result is a tightly-wound plot that cranks up more tension at every turn. The fraught interactions between Evelyn and Martine open up the traumas and sins of Evelyn’s past and cast an unforgiving spotlight on the man she married. It became so easy to hate Nathan, even as I acknowledged the tiniest kernel of pity for him (imagine being married to Evelyn. Woah). However, there’s no forgiving his choices, which are unspeakable. It’s much easier to first pity and then admire Martine, Evelyn’s clone.
Martine is an imperfect mirror and the perfect foil: even Evelyn can’t blame her for having been made – or how Nathan made her. And as it becomes clear exactly what conditioning he subjected her to, it’s hard not to rage against him. The perfect wife is eager to please. The perfect wife is never idle. The perfect wife is always there when you need her. If alarm bells are ringing about abusive and controlling relationships, they should be. But in this case, the perfect wife is also Evelyn’s clone. She’s clever and inquisitive and quietly determined. Both her creation and her survival beyond a few days are entirely illegal. There can, after all, only be one. Would you trust her?
As the plot unspooled, I was fascinated to see where Gailey would take it next and – like the excellent champagne potatoes – found a wild glee in its progression as the women are given ever more reasons to turn on one another. At the same time, Gailey asks questions that push into the sharply personal: who would notice if you were replaced by a doppelganger? Who truly sees you, knows your most revealing quirks and flaws? Would they accept you as you are if they had a chance at a version of you with the cracks smoothed over, the sharp edges softened? Could you hurt someone who looked like you? What if – in spite of the mirror – they didn’t see you as human?
I loved this book. I already want to read it again. I want to see it on screen (good news: it has been optioned by exactly the right production company to do it justice). Expect unlikeable characters and compelling drama, unethical nightmares and the insidious realisation that we were all conditioned, one way or another.
I can’t wait to see what horrible idea Sarah Gailey is brewing up to unleash on us next.