‘The Only Ones’ started off 5-star strong.
I loved the character of Inez – her voice was incredibly well-developed and believable. She’s an ultimately pragmatic individual, horribly uneducated, with a limit of vision that restricts her scope and her ability to understand things in a terrifying way. However, within her own sphere she is a tough, capable survivor. I absolutely loved the combination of her slangy Queens vocabulary and the half-understood medical argot which she has picked up through her years of working as an experimental subject. (The matter-of-fact way in which she repeats, “It was invasive” – bone-chilling and heartbreaking.)
In this falling-apart future NYC (and the whole world), plagues are everywhere, and babies are hard to come by. However, Inez seems to be immune to all the horrific ailments that are decimating the planet. When a vet-turned-amateur-geneticist-for-hire notices this immunity, a scheme is hatched to get immune babies out of Inez. However, since her reproductive system was destroyed by a previous medical experiment gone wrong, the only possibility may be cloning. And although this is a dystopic future full of weird and grotesque horrors, cloning seems to be the one ‘unnatural’ things that society still is repulsed by (this is a major weakness of the book, in my opinion.)
When the client who’d agreed to ‘purchased’ the cloned babies pulls out of the deal, forcing Inez to take a baby in an agreement which seems to exist just to further the plot, at first I was impressed. Inez’ attempt to care for an infant, without any experience or planning for motherhood, is grueling and more realistic than any other depiction of taking care of a baby during an apocalypse that I’ve ever read.
However, then the book gets into what I feel is the author’s main reason for writing the book – and that’s where it lost me.
The story begins to work on a metaphorical level, exploring the issues of motherhood and identity. Inez’ daughter is a clone of herself, and she’s terrified, from what she’s been told, that her daughter may in some way BE herself. It gets into some depth exploring how parents might emotionally invest their children with their own (the parents’) identity. It also goes on at length (a lot of length) about the self-sacrifice of parents, the lengths they’re willing to go to for their children, and how the children are inherently ungrateful, as they are incapable of seeing how and why such things might be a sacrifice. It also acknowledges that these sacrifices may be misguided.
This part of the book is undeniably well-done. However, it was also unspeakably tedious. I am just not that interested in the travails of motherhood, and I am not at all interested in the details of efforts to get a child into the best school possible. Not even in an apocalypse.
Read for post-apocalyptic book club.