Brand new review: Girl One by Sara Flannery Murphy

By Ekta R. Garg

June 2, 2021

Genre: Mainstream fiction

Release date: June 1, 2021

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A young woman considered a scientific miracle discovers that there’s a darker agenda behind the science when her mother goes missing. As the woman searches for her mother and for answers about her own existence, she’ll have to decide whether the path she’s chosen for herself is the right one after all. Author Sara Flannery Murphy offers an intriguing premise that’s light on crucial details in the novel Girl One.

When Josephine “Josie” Morrow was born in the 1970s, some people called her a miracle baby. Others called her an abomination. Her scientific father, Joseph Bellanger, called her Girl One, because Josie was the first child conceived without male DNA. Josie came out whole and a perfect replica of her mother, Margaret.

Josie and Margaret lived in a commune known only as the Homestead with eight other Mothers and Girls. Media and social backlash forced the Mothers and Girls to keep to themselves, despite Dr. Bellanger’s confidence that one day the world would accept the Girls for what they are: scientific breakthroughs. Not long after the last Girl is born, however, someone sets fire to the Homestead. One of the Girls and Dr. Bellanger die while everyone else barely escapes with their lives.

In 1994, Josie is in medical school in Chicago. Unlike some of the other Girls, Josie is fascinated by the science that created them and wants to reproduce it in the lab. When the Homestead burned down, the fire took all of Dr. Bellanger’s notes and research with it. Now Josie is slowly piecing it back together. It helps her feel closer to Dr. Bellanger who always called her his most special daughter.

Then word comes that her mother’s house in her small Illinois hometown has burned down. Josie races back home, only to discover that Margaret has disappeared. The circumstances around the fire are suspicious at best, and Josie gets a feeling the whole incident is somehow connected to her status as Girl One.

Having no one else to turn to, Josie starts combing through Margaret’s belongings and finds the contact information for a reporter with a keen interest in the Homestead. They begin a search for Margaret by tracking down the other Mother-Girl pairs to see if Margaret visited any of them recently. As Josie talks to the sisters that science gave her, she begins to understand how their existence is more incredible than anyone realized and how that very existence puts all of them in grave danger.

Author Sara Flannery Murphy offers readers a cursory introduction to the field of parthenogenesis, where a species reproduces without the presence of sperm. Much is made in the book about this accomplishment in humans, yet Murphy doesn’t share any of the scientific details. The oversight makes it a little harder to buy into the concept overall. Dr. Bellanger is purported to be some kind of genius scientist, yet readers never actually get to see what he did to accomplish this incredible feat. Later explanations, too, are skimmed over. Instead, Murphy directs readers to the relationships between the Girls and between them and their Mothers.

Here, too, the story feels a little lightweight. Margaret’s willingness to participate in Dr. Bellanger’s experiment on the Homestead is the only one given much consideration, but the details are sparse. Readers never get the chance to hear the “why” of it all—why would nine women leave behind their lives and all social conventions to participate in a radical scientific experiment?

Without this baseline motivation or any grounded science, the book becomes an exercise in the suspension of disbelief. Josie’s voice is the strongest, and Murphy’s descriptions are delightful and innovative. However, the story lacks the weight to make it truly a knockout. I recommend readers Borrow Girl One.

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