Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Double Helix by Nancy Werlin

Double Helix, by Nancy Werlin, is a mystery-thriller about modern-day scientific advancement and the ethical price humanity pays when trying to play God. While it's a page-turner with an engaging protagonist, the ground it treads is a bit too familiar.

Eli Samuels is about to graduate from high school. Despite his father's protestations, he refuses to think about college. It's not because Eli doesn't think he's smart enough (he's the smartest kid in his year), or because he doesn't like to learn. His mother has Huntington's Disease, and caring for her has eaten up all of the family's money. Eli knows his father can't afford to send him to college, so why bother with the charade of filling out applications?

On the night that Eli's father finally realizes his son hasn't applied anywhere, Eli has a bit too much to drink, sends off an email to none other than Dr. Quincy Wyatt, geneticist and head of Wyatt Transgenics, and asks him for a job. To Eli's embarrassment, Dr. Wyatt does not simply delete the email, and instead asks to see him. Unbelievably, he hires Eli as a lab assistant, a job that normally goes to someone with a college degree. Eli's excited to be working with a man who is regarded as a genius in the biogenetic field, a man who seems intent on mentoring him, a man with whom he doesn't have to hold back when discussing scientific matters. Eli has always felt his brain is a handicap, and it's refreshing to talk with someone whose intellect not only matches his, but surpasses it. Moreover, the work Dr. Wyatt is doing with DNA - the work Eli himself would be doing - could change the world.

Eli's father does not share his excitement. Barely on speaking terms with his son, he begs Eli in a letter not to take the job. He can't tell Eli why, he just asks that Eli trust him. Bit by bit, Eli finds out just why his father is so adamant about avoiding Dr. Wyatt and what Dr. Wyatt's research has to do with his family. He also discovers something shocking about himself.

Double Helix reminds me a lot of Mary Pearson's The Adoration of Jenna Fox. However, I thought Adoration was more tightly written with a more surprising plot and a more satisfying payoff. I was never surprised or shocked by the events of Double Helix; I expected the final revelation and was disappointed there wasn't more to it. The payoff at the end is what makes or breaks these bioethics mystery-thrillers. Double Helix's just didn't pack enough punch.

Werlin has created a very three-dimensional character in Eli. His actions are a mixture of frustrating, disappointing, and laudatory, just as a teenager's actions generally are. Even when I wanted to shake him for his treatment of those he loved, I could understand. By the end of the book, he had grown considerably. Werlin is able to pull off an authentic teenage male voice, something I've seen female young adult authors struggle with sometimes. That said, I still don't feel the characterization was as strong in Eli as it was in Jenna. In all fairness, this may be because Jenna's situation demanded more character growth. I loved Adoration so much that it seems unfair to constantly compare Double Helix to it. Werlin's book was still a great read and I enjoyed every minute of it.

I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Double Helix to teens interested in reading a good mystery or thriller. It's quick, exciting, well-written, and the science behind the plot is spelled out in plain English so most teens won't have a hard time understanding it. The ethical questions it raises are important and timely, even if they have been raised by numerous other authors before. (It's worth mentioning that Werlin does have firm answers to the questions her book asks, and many readers may not agree with them. But then what is the point of reading if we are only fed what we already believe?) For readers who haven't read many books about this topic, it's a great starting place. It might spur them on to finding more of this subgenre. For someone such as myself who devours stories like these, it seemed a bit "been there, done that." There are more inventive books out there.

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