More Orphan Black (2013-17) than The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), the plot of Sara Flannery Murphy’s Girl One is founded on the premise that in the early 1970s nine women, with the help of a scientist named Joseph Bellanger, each gave birth to a daughter parthenogenetically, in a so-called virgin birth. While The Handmaid’s Tale is notable for its prescience, Girl One is more a grim reflection on today’s world with its growing threats to reproductive rights and freedoms, touching on questions of women’s power and the ways a male-dominated society might receive the notion of women giving birth without the help of men (spoiler alert: not well). At its best it is an exciting mystery/thriller, with an underlay of science-fantasy. The novel’s science-fictional aspirations, however, are not as successful or as compelling as its portrayal of the strength of female relationships, be they mother/daughter, friends, “sisters,” or lesbian lovers.
As the novel opens, Josephine Morrow, the narrator, has learned from television news that her mother has disappeared, and she travels home from the University of Chicago, where she is in med school. Josephine, or Josie, is the titular Girl One, the oldest of nine girls born to nine different mothers, born parthenogenetically, without male sperm. We learn as Josie recalls her own past, and through interspersed newspaper and magazine clippings, that the girls were a media sensation, but that there was a backlash, with conservative groups protesting and calling for their deaths. When Josie was seven, Homestead, the commune where Bellanger conducted his experiments, burnt down, and the mothers and daughters dispersed and mostly lost contact with one another. As Josie recalls, “For most people, the story ended with the fire. […] The surviving Mothers and Girls sank into an uneasy infamy, becoming Jeopardy clues and textbook footnotes” (p. 9). Margaret takes Josie to a small town in Illinois, “as if,” Josie recalls, “we could just disappear into normalcy” (p. 9), but Josie devotes her life to following in her “father’s” footsteps, her work at the University of Chicago concentrating on trying to replicate his. Her obsession with Bellanger causes a rift between herself and her mother, with the result that at the start of the novel Josie has not seen or talked to Margaret for some time.
When Josie investigates her mother’s deserted house, she is immediately convinced that there is something seriously wrong. Some searching turns up a scrap of paper with a phone number which leads her to Thomas Abbott, a newspaper reporter who wants to write a book on Bellanger and the girls. Margaret has been in touch with him, and information he provides leads Josie to what becomes the main plotline, almost a quest narrative, as Josie follows in her mother’s footsteps, seeking out the pairs of mothers and daughters. As she travels from place to place at first with Thomas and later with two of her fellow “girls,” she learns more about her own origins, about her mother, and about the man she admires: Joseph Bellanger.
The novel’s strengths, and there are many, lie predominantly in this compelling quest narrative and in the relationships that develop on Josie’s journey of discovery. There is also the mystery of what happened to Josie’s mother and a sense of underlying threat. Josie is immediately recognizable not just from the publicity that has followed her life but because she looks identical to her mother, whose face is in the news as a missing person. Josie’s status as the product of a “virgin” birth leads to prurient curiosity from men about both her body and her sexuality; she is often treated as a witch and threatened with rape. As well, there is the mysterious man in the maroon car, first seen outside Margaret’s house and seemingly possessed of an uncanny ability to follow the movements of Josie and her companions. The first appearance of the maroon car is genuinely creepy:
That noise of the engine outside was still itching at me. Setting the notebook aside for a moment, I crept to the dark window. A car idled across the street. A maroon sedan. I couldn’t make out the interior from here. The taillights were dull blobs against the growing dusk, the license plate obscured. I tried to pinpoint exactly when I’d first noticed the sound. Five minutes ago? Maybe ten? Did someone know I was here? (p.16)
As Josie travels from place to place, she develops a grudging friendship with Thomas Abbott, although she is never sure of the extent to which she can trust him. More importantly, she is reunited with the “girls” and develops a particularly close relationship with Catherine—Cate—and with Isabelle, the daughter of Margaret’s closest friend among the mothers. Each of the mothers and daughters is well drawn, distinct, and each provides more pieces to the picture that Josie is building of what happened at the Homestead and the true nature of Joseph Bellanger. A crucial aspect of the novel is the notion of “sisterhood” and female relationships. For example, the mothers and daughters are so physically in sync that their menstrual periods came at the same time, as did those of all the women living at the Homestead. Although Josie and her mother have been estranged, nothing shakes Josie’s determination to find her mother, and their fundamentally close relationship is completely believable.
The mystery/thriller plotline on its own would have been enough to make this novel successful, and indeed it is a suspenseful read, a “page-turner.” It would make a great movie. However, underlying the main narrative are the science-fictional aspects of the story, which are considerably less effective, nor quite as thought-provoking as its author might intend. First of all, Murphy makes what I feel is a mistake in her worldbuilding by attempting to ground her invented history in known events and culture: the Challenger disaster, the death of Kurt Cobain, familiar popular music and television. The narrative is interspersed with clippings from contemporary magazines such as Time and Rolling Stone, in what one imagines is an attempt to increase verisimilitude. Yet, for me, this attempt to establish historical veracity pulled me out of the story. Anyone the same age as Josephine or older would know that Time magazine never had the “girls” on its cover. Other alternative histories, for example Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series, establish the invented possibilities in shifts from the known historical record, either significant—such as a full second term for President Nixon—or minor, such as a popular television series that is similar yet different to one that existed in the “real” timeline. It seems a curious choice to place a “what if” story so firmly within our known history (and although the 1970s may seem the distant past to some, they are not so long ago).
Then there is the central idea of the “virgin” births, the parthenogenetic creation of daughters, each one an exact replica of her mother, without recourse to male sperm (let alone sexual intercourse). An excerpt from a Time magazine cover story reports: “While some animal species can produce asexually, this is the first time in documented modern history that human beings have conceived without the presence of sperm. If Dr. Bellanger’s claims hold any weight, he could be restructuring the very nature of mankind” (p. 31). Yet, it is far from clear exactly how this was supposed to work or what biological processes Josie may be able to discover in order to replicate Bellanger’s work. Much is made of the fact that each daughter is identical (even to the sound of her voice) to her mother; are they clones? It’s not clear. No real attempt is made to explain how something that almost everyone in the novel acknowledges is impossible came to be.
Indeed, what we do learn about the processes behind the parthenogenetic births leads us to a more mystical conclusion, which is intriguing but both drawn with insufficient clarity and founded in a somewhat muddled collection of references to folklore and mythology. I don’t want to go into too much detail here to avoid spoilers, but it can be said that, in addition to the miracle of her birth, each of the girls is provided with specific supernatural powers. These are useful weapons, but really come across as convenient plot points, rather than arising organically from the girls themselves or from the context of the story. Nor is it explained satisfactorily why each of the powers is different and why they emerge at different times. Almost without exception, meanwhile, the men in the novel are portrayed as violent and unpleasant, with sex and power the only things on their minds. As a feminist myself, I really hate to say that a feminist message in a novel is somewhat heavy-handed, but I found it hard to escape that summation. If we are, in fact, invited to explore the potential of a world in which women can reproduce without men, I think I’d like to see more nuanced consequences than simply “men are going to be seriously pissed off.”
Overall, Girl One is a successful mystery/thriller, whose science-fictional and philosophical ambitions are not as well developed as they might have been. Murphy writes very well; the relationships between all the women were very believable, and I very much enjoyed following Josie’s journey to find both her mother and herself; but the novel needed more if it were to be a serious treatment of its theme.