The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey made me really consider that term: “the other woman.” Other. College English classes asked me to consider: who is the Other? And they made it a verb: to Other, to render something that could be taken in terms of its similarities and instead treating it only in terms of its differences. Not my culture, not my race, not my gender, not my in-group. Not me.
The Echo Wife’s “other woman,” Martine, is the Other by asymptotically vanishing margins. She has the same culture, race, gender, and in-group as the protagonist, Evelyn. She has the same husband. She even has the same DNA.
Martine is not Evelyn’s twin, but her clone. The only difference between them, besides thirty-odd years of life, is Martine’s programming: she was created to be better. But who could be better than Evelyn, a woman who in the first chapter is receiving a coveted award for advancing scientific progress in the field of cloning?
Well, Evelyn doesn’t think there are many people better than her, but her husband Nathan isn’t on the same page. He has different ideas of what a wife should be. And he may be less talented than Evelyn, at least according to her, but he still thinks he can do better. His vision is smaller, his insights less profound, but he burns with a similar zeal. Instead of inventing a whole field of cloning, he steals Evelyn’s research. And what he accomplishes is small: it’s the size of a single-family home. It’s the misogynist fantasy of an ideal, obedient wife. It’s the size of the boxes in which he thinks women belong.
Nathan’s decisions set off cascading disasters for Evelyn, and then for Martine. Separately, they are almost certain to destroy each other. But if they join forces, they might be able to survive. And—once they start trying—they might even be able to get exactly what they want, not just what they need. But does Martine, so thoroughly programmed, actually want anything? And conversely, is there any limit on Evelyn’s desire and ambition, already more important than anything and anyone from her life before?
It’s a clever conflict Gailey sets up, not just different needs but entirely different capacities for need between her mirror-image characters. Martine is a foil, but also a cypher for Evelyn, revealing Evelyn’s vulnerabilities and flaws as surely as she brings out her strengths.
In particular, she reveals how shockingly naïve Evelyn can be. She misses huge issues in her most intimate relationships, both professional and private, and consistently fails to take responsibility when those relationships fall apart. I appreciate seeing a narrator with this kind of flaw since it’s both fitting—given her upbringing—and humanizing. Evelyn has all the answers when she’s in the lab; outside, she’s mortal and fallible as anyone else.
Even without the answers, Evelyn takes charge of Martine and all but goads her into developing a personality. It’s strong character work in a remarkably short novel, and doesn’t fall into any of the clone cliches I’ve come to loathe, trite declarations of individuality that don’t go further into what individuality even means. Gailey asks those questions relentlessly, of all of her characters. Even Nathan.
My biggest issue with this book is that, in the middle, Nathan disappears as an urgent problem. Sure, he’s still a problem, but mostly in the moral sense. He’s an unprincipled dick and his wives have to grapple with that—emotionally. Evelyn and Martine are only shown to be dealing with the personal and ethical ramifications of his choice to make a clone, not the immediacy of someone having a meeting with him. There’s a token, mostly offstage effort to provide excuses, but it’s clear that Gailey isn’t very interested in the minutia of the murder.
Which makes it a bit odd that this is presented as a thriller. There are very suspenseful scenes, yes, but I can’t say much of the plot surprised me. That’s all right. It wasn’t the twists that impress so much as the way Gailey explores the concepts she sets up.
The issues she gets into are complex and compelling. The central issue is that of Evelyn’s marriage to Nathan, the dissolution of which sets off the whole book. Since Evelyn is our narrator, we get her post-mortem on the relationship very clearly. But further dissection reveals the real and messy guts of the matter. Evelyn constantly belittles her ex-husband, impugning everything from his intelligence to his neediness. As the book goes on, it’s not clear that Nathan was needy—it seems like he just had needs. He was smart enough to make a clone, and his immorality is increasingly matched by Evelyn’s own as she goes further and further outside the bounds of decency to get what she wants.
But lest we view this as a straightforward case of hypocrisy and self-deception, Gailey gives us tidbits of Evelyn’s childhood, which was steeped in neglect and abuse. The messed up family dynamics are Evelyn’s “programming,” and the book asks us whether we are the clones of our parents, and whether we must adhere to their programming. Nature vs. nurture has always been complicated, and it’s all the more so when applied to specific cases like this.
The Echo Wife also asks whether we can parent ourselves if our parents are unwilling or unable to do it. Evelyn is repeatedly called up on to “parent” Martine, making very clear how she has (and has not) been “parenting” herself in the absence of any good role models. Seeing oneself as “other” makes it obvious how we are often either much kinder or much crueler to others than to ourselves. “Would you say the same things about your friends as you’re saying about yourself?” therapists often ask. Well, Evelyn doesn’t have any friends. All she has is Martine. How she grows to treat her clone is a very interesting meditation on how two people can have such similar and such very different ideas of self vs. other.
The ending is bleak and sad and grim. Everyone gets something approaching what they want, and all of it is undermined by hurt and selfishness. Nathan and Evelyn come out looking even uglier and meaner than they did in the beginning, which is a feat, given that the book starts with a bitter divorce, a profound ethics violation, an attempted murder, and a (different) completed murder. Only Martine seems to still have some morals intact, but her situation is not exactly what I’d call hopeful or happy. It’s dark, but more than that, it’s depressing. Which is harder to swallow these days.
That’s not The Echo Wife’s fault. You definitely should read this if you want to think, be challenged, and explore the sprawling consequences of biology, cloning, and human research. You absolutely should read this if you want to experience a subtly unreliable narrator, the thrill of unease, and intense psychological drama. But be warned that this is a product of the times and not an antidote: it does not offer much hope or resolution. The Echo Wife is very much like our protagonists: it shows us what is only barely “other” in order to show us ourselves.