Monday, August 14, 2023

Book Review: One of the Boys

By Jami Denison

The “nature versus nurture” debate has been going on since the days of Cain and Abel. What’s more responsible for personality: upbringing or genetics? Lately, the balance has tilted more toward the genetics side of things. As more genes are identified that link to certain personality traits and quirks, how close are we to these tests becoming a routine part of an infant’s first medical screening? Or even a prenatal diagnosis? 

Author Jayne Cowie takes these questions and marries them to traditional domestic suspense tropes in her sophomore release, One of the Boys. The result is a sometimes uneven but always engaging look not only at the “nature versus nurture” question, but also issues of parenting styles, wealth and class, shortcomings in the healthcare system, and what it means to be a good mother. 

Antonia and Bea are sisters, but their lives couldn’t be more different. Older sister Antonia married a doctor; unmarried Bea gave birth to her son in a bathroom because the NHS midwife wouldn’t believe her claim of labor. But both women have brought up their sons in a world changed by the discovery of a gene, M, that predicts male violence. Married to the doctor who found the gene and made a fortune, Antonia’s son Jack is M negative, and it’s made all the difference in his life. But Bea opted not to test her son Simon, and society has treated him as positive by default. As the years pass, life gets harder and harder for the M positive and untested boys, as discrimination against them becomes legal in the name of keeping women safe. When things finally come to a head when Simon is 18, Bea turns to Antonia for support. But putting Simon and Jack together could be disastrous for both cousins.

Described as a feminist author, Cowie creates worlds that are anti-The Handmaid’s Tale. The narrative insistence that society hates boys and men and bends over backward to create a world safe for women (these themes are prevalent in her debut, Curfew) are almost comic to read in a country outlawing abortion and moving on to get rid of no-fault divorce. (In her defense, Cowie lives in the U.K., so she might not be living daily with this irony.) Still, I found the pacing in One of the Boys to be gripping, and the dilemma Cowie creates—how far should a mother go to protect her child—to be universal. And she delivers the twists and timing that a reader expects from the genre. 

A supporting character, Zara, perfectly encapsulates the impact of this discovery. Her husband is one of the co-discoverers of the gene, and he leaves Zara when their son Malcolm tests positive. Other parents want nothing to do with Malcolm—his outbursts, even as a child, are truly scary—and Zara becomes impoverished trying to treat Malcolm on her own. The drugs that treat the gene cause side effects which lead the boys not to take them; withdrawing from the drug causes surges in violence. Completely isolated from society, M positive boys—and eventually men—are sent to “farms” to perform hard labor, as manual work and nature are supposed to keep them calm. These scenes with Malcolm reminded me of the struggles faced by parents who have children with autism—the isolation, the marital issues, the lack of support for adult children—and felt very real.

The characters didn’t work as well for me as the plot and pacing did. While Bea and Simon are sympathetic, Antonia comes across as entitled and out of touch in the beginning, and unbelievable at the end. The men in the story are stereotypical. Still, a reader doesn’t pick up a book like this for deeply nuanced and thoughtful characterizations, so these aspects didn’t really bother me. Two twists at the end had me scratching my head, though. And while eventually there was talk of adult men getting tested for the gene, prenatal testing isn’t mentioned at all, which would have added a very compelling and ironic dimension to the plot. 

Domestic suspense is a popular genre, and I applaud One of the Boys for marrying it with science fiction tropes. “How far should a mother go to protect her child” is one of those universal literary questions that appear in works across centuries. The more complicated version of this question recognizes that sometimes it’s not the child that needs protection, but everyone else. 

Thanks to Berkley for the book in exchange for an honest review.

Also by Jayne Cowie:

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