It’s not everyday that a genetic counselor publishes a novel. In fact, I think that has only happened on one day, with the recent publication of Anybody’s Miracle (Herring River Press) by our genetic counseling colleague Laura Hercher.
Laura is my partner in blogging crime here at The DNA Exchange. One might rightly point my own finger at me and accuse me of a conflict of interest in reviewing a book written by a fellow DNA Ex’er. While this review may amount to a bit of free advertising for Laura, I will not receive a single ha’penny or any other form of compensation from Laura, her publisher, or anybody connected with Laura.
Anybody’s Miracle is about the tangled web we weave once we begin to conceive. The story centers on Robin Hogan, a bright, beautiful Catholic woman whose otherwise wonderful life lacks one thing – children. Unable to conceive naturally, she and her husband suffer through the trials and tribulations of infertility work-ups. After nearly losing her life from ovarian hyperstimulation, she conceives twin boys with the help of IVF, and here the story takes off after a slowish start. She desperately wishes to conceive another child even though the risks to her health are great. Robin then becomes driven to learn the fate of her frozen embryos, who she thinks of as her children. Robin’s sleuthing leads to the discovery that one of her embryos resulted in a successful pregnancy for an infertile couple and she hatches an entirely unethical scheme to learn the couple’s identities. Robin’s becomes obsessed with the child – the daughter she never had! – and takes to spying on the family and photographing the girl from a distance.
Just when the going starts to get creepy, the plot twists like a helix when the little girl develops leukemia and requires a bone marrow transplant. Of course the only compatible donor turns out to be one of Robin’s twin boys, who is the girl’s genetic brother. Because of poor communication, misconceptions, and Robin’s Hitchcockian obsession with the girl, the two families clash when the girl’s parents not unreasonably believe that Robin will demand they give up their daughter to Robin in exchange for using her son as a bone marrow donor. Lawsuits, meetings with high-profile lawyers who have their own agendas, and media hoopla follow in grand style. The craziness is resolved only with the unwitting help and innocence of a hungry little boy.
Set during the 1990′s and early 2000′s, the story plays out against the major events and trends of that era – the dot.com bust, 9/11, cell phones, homosexuality taking its first tentative steps out of the social closet, and parents obsessed with raising their children as if they were organic vegetables. Perhaps the greatest miracle of all – the breaking of the Curse of the Bambino by the 2004 Boston Red Sox – plays a critical symbolic role. The novel explores several themes near and dear to the hearts of genetic counselors – the conflicts that arise when parenthood is defined by genetic, social, and gestational criteria; the moral and social status of embryos; and how the often deep and profound childbearing urge will push some people to great personal and ethical extremes.
The book is an easy and enjoyable read, and the pacing, though occasionally uneven, will keep you wanting to know what happens next. I thought the ending wrapped things up a bit too neatly and happily. I was also hoping for a larger role for a genetic counselor character (genetic counseling is mentioned very briefly when an “offstage” GC make what I would describe a bad professional judgment call), but that does not detract from the novel. Anybody’s Miracle arrives just in time for a good summer read for genetic counselors. Maybe if you bring it to the AEC in Anaheim in October, you can get Laura to autograph your copy.
The closest similar achievement by a genetic counselor that I know of was by Anna Phelan, a former genetic counselor who wrote the script for Mask, the 1985 Peter Bogdonavich movie that starred Cher and was based on the life of Rocky Dennis, a young man with craniodiaphyseal dypslasia. Anna went on to contribute to Gorillas in the Mist, Girl, Interrupted and other films. There are a number of creative talents in the genetic counseling community – Jon Weil’s intriguing pottery, the photography of Jean Pfotenhauer and Liane Abrams, to name just a few . Use the Comments section below to tell us of the creative skills of other genetic counselors so we can celebrate the talents of all of our colleagues.