Audrey Schulman’s new novel, her fifth, tells an absorbing story anchored on the brilliance of the main character. Think Holden Caulfield or Katniss Everdeen. Whether or not you like the book, you won’t forget Dr. Francine Burk, or Frankie, a determined, self-willed loner who researches mating behaviors. Her “theory of bastards” has won her not only a MacArthur Foundation grant but also celebrity status in the field of evolutionary psychology. When she accepts a position at The Foundation, a high-ranking research institute a few miles outside Kansas City, Missouri, her lauded presence wins a major grant for the institute in its efforts to increase public understanding of evolution. It’s big enough to keep operations going for two years, and that’s good news for the organization’s employees, let alone their chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans.
There’s something else about Frankie that makes her a memorable protagonist, and that’s her struggle with crippling physical pain for the majority of her young life (she’s 33 years old). She has coped with it by focusing her attention on research complexities, as well as developing an antagonistic approach toward the doctors who, for a long time, failed to diagnose the endometriosis causing the pain. By the time she arrives at The Foundation, however, she’s had surgery that’s successfully treated the condition but left her weak – to the point where she’s temporarily dependent on a wheelchair.
Frankie settles in to study the 14 bonobos at The Foundation with the help of David Stotts, an ex-military fellow researcher. Their uneasy collaboration and Frankie’s rocky beginning days of observance in the bonobo enclosure create a slow but fascinating start to this highly involving novel, with much reading about Frankie finding ways to get close enough to the bonobos to successfully observe them. You can’t help but find joy in these bonobos, each with a distinct personality, such as Adele who plays basketball, free-throwing for hours on the court, or Goliath who drinks dish-washing soap and burps bubbles.
The time frame is the future, which we know by Frankie’s “bodyware” of implanted tech devices providing her information that we now get from our cell phones and laptops. And then there are avatars replacing human TV anchors, big data replacing doctors and lawyers and high-tech machinery administered by APPS replacing factory workers. It’s science-fiction fare, and yet this technology is not overly emphasized or showcased, rather seamlessly integrated into the narrative, acknowledging that society has advanced beyond hand-held devices and has become totally dependent on the technology.
24 days into Frankie’s research at The Foundation, a blinding dust storm requires evacuation. Frankie and Stotts stay behind to care for the bonobos, enduring a tough three days after the technology breaks down. And when the storm ends, rescue doesn’t arrive and technology remains dead, causing Frankie and Stotts to lead the bonobos away from The Foundation in search of food and water. Their six-day journey is much like that of the father and son in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: houses are empty and humans have disappeared. The technology shut-down isn’t simply a temporary glitch, rather a catastrophic end. “How helpless we are without technology,” Schulman writes.
This large story gradually and deeply takes a firm grip on the heart with its themes of permanence (how we define it) and the nature of love (where we find it). Frankie begins to think of “home” in a different way, influenced by the bonobos’ connections to each other in their pack. She also realizes she’s loved by them in the way they love each other: unconditionally, as family and respectfully. It happens close to the end of the book in a wonderful, brief scene when the bonobo Marge teases Frankie and then kisses her. For this solitary researcher, molded by pain and now in a world isolated and barren without its technology, a door opens to new, real life.