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Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Perfect People by Peter James

At around the same time as the Wellcome Trust Book Prize winner was announced, I was finishing one of the shortlisted books, Perfect People by Peter James. Mark Lawson, chair of the prize judges, has said: "The judging panel includes representatives of literature and of medicine and our hope was to find a work that met the toughest judgements in both disciplines." Unfortunately I don't think Perfect People holds up to tough judgement in either field. There was a lot that I didn't like about this book, but to its credit it gave me a lot to think about and it has taken me longer than usual to process my thoughts on it.


Perfect People is a thriller with a sci-fi twist that delves into the shady world of eugenics. John and Naomi Klaesson are a couple who have been left heartbroken by the death of their son by a horrible hereditary disease. Desperate to have another child, but wanting to be sure the same fate will not befall them again, they hand over their life savings and their bodies to the infamous Dr Dettore and his shady offshore genetics clinic. He promises that he can make their dreams come true and when Naomi falls pregnant it seems like their wish for a perfect family life is about to become a reality. But has Dr Dettore got something to hide? (yes) (I hope that isn't too much of a spoiler) The Klaessons must contend not only with the stresses of pregnancy but also with the general public who consider what they have done to be an abomination, that they are meddling with Mother Nature.

To begin with, I didn't enjoy James' prose at all. I have never read any of his Roy Grace novels, and I gather that this represents quite a departure from his usual writing style. On the whole it isn't that bad but some of his turns of phrase really made me cringe:

'Naomi was awake; John could hear the faint crunching sound of her eyelashes as she blinked'

...what? I have just sat here at my laptop for 30 seconds, furiously blinking away, and can firmly state that eyelashes (mine, anyway) are entirely silent. What a bizarre sentence. I also found myself squirming at the one sex scene in the novel, which is really dreadful.

I found Naomi and John to be generally unlikeable protagonists. They throw themselves into Dettore's clinic with almost unbelievable naivety, particularly given the fact that John is supposed to be a scientist with a background in biology. Initially this made me feel sympathetic towards them, but as the story progressed it got on my nerves. John in particular makes a couple of terrible decisions that put me off him as a character quite early on in the book. And setting aside the difficulties they face with their children, I found their attitude as parents to be quite questionable at times. The more I reflect on this book, the more I am starting to consider the fact that maybe the reader is supposed to see them as very flawed human beings. I'm still not sure though, and the fact that I couldn't engage with either of them certainly affected my enjoyment of the book.

I believe that Peter James spent 10 long years researching and writing this novel but I have to be honest and say I don't think it really shows. It's not that he has included lots of false information or poorly-explained facts, he hasn't. It's more that there just isn't that much science included in the book. And to borrow from the Wellcome Trust Book Prize blog: "The science in the novel is very much fiction". For example, in the acknowledgements at the end of my copy he thanks a certain professor for providing him with material on 'Genetic dissection of neural circuits controlling emotional behaviours', and I can't identify where in the book this type of technical information has been used. Maybe it is unfair of me to talk about this in my review as it isn't detrimental to the novel at all - maybe the opposite, as there's nothing I hate more that when authors try to tackle scientific/medical topics head on and fail miserably. I would much rather they gloss over the details or avoid going into too much depth. It was just a point that interested me when I read the author's acknowledgements at the end.

As I have already said, though, from an ethical point of view the book gave me lots to think about. The morals of genetic engineering, for both medical and aesthetic reasons, could be debated all day. It's also interesting to ponder the mindset of the Christian sects who are dead against genetic engineering of the embryo but at the same time urge the Klaessons to opt for an abortion or even plot acts of violence against them. At the moment this is a topic that makes for exciting fiction but who knows what might be possible in the future? So even though my overall impression of Perfect People was not great and it kind of annoyed me, I am glad to have read it.

9 comments:

  1. Oooh this sounds interesting, great review

    Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

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  2. Wonderful review! I am curious about the book now, but I am forewarned. :-)

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  3. That's an interesting review. I WAS curious how well it fit with the interests of the Wellcome Trust Book Prize...I'll check it out when it's published in the US, anyway. :) I like reading books that give me something to think about.

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    1. Me too - even before I read it, I thought it seemed a little out of place on the shortlist. It's not as 'literary' as the other choices, I suppose. It will be interesting to read your thoughts when you get your hands on a copy!

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  4. Interesting review. I wasn't that fussed on reading the novel but you have made it sound quite interesting. It goes to show that while research can dominate a novel, it can also leave a reader wondering where it all went.

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    1. That's exactly right, as a reader it's sometimes difficult to fully appreciate how much blood, sweat and tears an author puts into their novels. If I hadn't read Peter James' notes I would never have guessed that he'd spent 10 years on this.

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  5. Sounds like a fascinating book - I've not read any of Peter James's books - this sounds like a good one to start off with !!

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  6. Books like this are always so interesting. In fact, I seem to have been reading a lot of books I didn't necessarily like but can appreciate for how they got me to think. This sounds like a great book for a book club. Can you imagine the discussions? Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

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    1. You're right, it would be really good for a book club, actually. There are so many directions the discussion could go in and it's full of topics that people could get quite emotive and heated about.

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