Lucy is a novel named for the female hybrid offspring born of a bonobo mother and human father, a creature called, at various times, a "humanzee" since the bonobo, a great ape found in the Congo in Africa, is occasionally referred to as a pygmy chimpanzee. The result of artificial insemination by her father, Donald Stone, a British anthropologist in the Congo with aims to improve the human species, Lucy is a very human looking 15 year old girl.

The novel begins in medias res when Jenny Lowe, an American primatologist whose camp is near Dr. Stone's, is awakened by the sound of gun fire from nearby insurgents.   She goes to Dr. Stone‘s camp, finds the anthropologist and an adult female bonobo lying on the ground, both dead from gun shot wounds. Near the two bodies is a living teen aged girl, Lucy, whom she rescues and manages to spirit back to her home base, Chicago, where Jenny‘s friend and lover, Harry Prendeville, a charismatic surgeon, awaits her. Lucy enrolls in high school, her genetic heritage kept secret from all save Jenny who discovers -- in one of several nods to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein -- Dr. Stone's notebooks.

Lucy meets and becomes best friends with Amanda Mather, a classmate (this relationship is far from clearly a strictly heterosexual one) and becomes the state wrestling champ because of her bonobo-inherited skill, strength and speed. When Lucy contracts a viral disease that bonobos, not humans, acquire and her secret is about to be exposed (Jenny, Amanda and Harry now all know), Lucy does what all 15 year olds would do in 2010 (the book is set in present time) - she outs herself on Facebook. (O tempora, O mores!)

The novel now enters the accelerated phase of denouement with expected and unexpected reactions from TV, the violent right (think Mickey the Gerund in Cast of Shadows in this database), Congress and the public. Without revealing too much plot as a spoiler, suffice it to say that a governmental scheme to abduct Lucy for the purpose of NHP (non-human primate) experimentation becomes a reality with devastating consequences that allow for a thrilling read with its share of tragedy and triumphs and ending with an unusual yet fulfilling conclusion satisfying for most concerned, especially Lucy and those who love her.


Lucy is the most recent novel by Laurence Gonzales, an American writer. It is evidently an attempt to raise the issues -- political, ethical, medical and biological -- of inter-species breeding, especially when one of those species is Homo sapiens. Using a bonobo, Pan paniscus and probably the closest of the great apes to us in behavioral terms, as Lucy's mother, Gonzales has written a highly readable, albeit deeply flawed, novel that succeeds in raising these areas for discussion. It fails as a novel on many fronts, not the least of which are its preposterous plot lines and undelivered philosophical promise implied by a fascinating biological premise.

First the good news. Gonzales can ably depict his characters as likable people (for the purposes of this annotation, I shall continue to refer to Lucy as a person) with likes, dislikes and flaws. We care about them, especially Lucy whose name derives from the girl's name given the Australopithecus afarensis skeleton discovered by team Leakey in 1972 in Ethiopia, no matter how strenuously the author protests the origin of Lucy Lowe's name in the novel.  He is also adept at introducing information about Lucy's bonobo heritage. We learn about the genetic similarities between us and bonobos, their behavior and some of their biology. And despite a curiously heavy handed, almost scriptwriting style at times, there are moments of felicitous grace, as when Lucy realizes that she, Amanda, Jenny and Harry have become, in bonobo terms, a tribe. (page 170) Too, Lucy describes herself and her loneliness succinctly when she characterizes herself as a species of one. (page 251)

Of greater concern is the lengths to which the author expects the reader to suspend disbelief. Minor gaffs: why is Lucy, at 15, suddenly college-bound? And does the author really expect us to believe that this home-schooled polymath, fluent in half a dozen languages, able to leap tall trees in a single bound, et cet., will, in a few hours under extreme stress, reflect on literary passages of great sophistication and range, beginning with the extraordinarily beautiful first line of Rilke's first Duino Elegy ("Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen?"), proceeding to Rimbaud's poem for winter: "Tu fermeras l'oeil, pour ne point ..."), next to "Fern Hill" by Dylan Thomas, ending with Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" ("I have instant conductors all over me ...")? (page 252) Equally unlikely is Lucy's virtually human appearance ("exotic" is the only thought Jenny, a specialist in bonobos, has when first seeing Lucy). One look at any of the marvelous photographs by Frans Lanting in a joint book with Frans de Waal, Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape, and a reader will realize how unlikely this appearance is for the daughter of a human-bonobo union.

But by far the worst news is the author's dereliction of responsibly using and representing, explicating or incorporating the endlessly intriguing issues his novelistic idea raises. Lucy is a person to all who know and love her, and clearly so to the reader, But she is an animal -- albeit a mildly interesting and entertaining kind of monkey or ape (depending how informed the radically conservative right thinker is who is currently hating and trying to use or exterminate her) - to the bible-toting, stereotypically stick (or should I say straw?)--figures Mr. Gonzales poses as the ideological bogey men in the book.

The best a U.S. Senator can do (i.e., the best the author can do) to expose her non-human self on the witness stand is to trick Lucy into using her supra-human strength to crush a steel toolbox in front of the nation watching this televised hearing. Nowhere is there a discussion of personhood, its genetic versus behavioral definition, species-ism, ethical responsibilities to animals qua animals ("animal rights"), the humane treatment of non-human primates, and the like. There is no intellectual discourse between or among the various characters on either side of the Lucy divide. The author would have done well to read any paragraph of Peter Singer or Mary Midgley or Stephen Clark.

The back cover describes this novel as a "daring biotechnical thriller in the tradition of Mary  Shelley and Michael Crichton ..."  At first blush there are quite a few superficial similarities to Shelley's 1818 masterpiece such as the secret creation of a new type of living being by a rogue scientist working outside the boundaries of societal norms and the discovery of the creator's notes. But this is no Frankenstein, or Ape and Essence or The Plague or 1984. Such socially minded novels begin with a fascinating, cutting edge concept or the possibility of such a concept that looks at society through fantastic lenses and dissects the issues via the conversation and actions of intelligent characters feeling deeply about the political, moral and historical nuances raised throughout the book. There is a give and take, interchange, debate.

The level of rational argument in this book between academic anthropologists, physicians and informed laymen is superficial and brief. Whether the author is unwilling or unable to have effected a more robust sounding of these vitally important and current issues, it is a most unfortunate defect of the novel. However, the moral, medical, biological and political subjects are here in the book and offer readers who wish to explore them in private or in groups, whether didactic or not, the opportunity to address the relevant debate before it arises either as an experiment of nature or in vitro.

This book would work well in comparison with the novels mentioned in this review as well as The Island of Dr. Moreau and Under the Skin (in this database). Movies that come to mind that also represent other aspects of human-animal relationships, especially when the animals are civilized and unexpectedly intelligent, are Planet of the Apes, various episodes of Star Trek and, curiously enough, King Kong.


Alfred A. Knopf

Place Published

New York



Page Count