Eileen Pollack’s absorbing new novel is an exciting depiction of painstaking scientific discovery and an insightful examination of the nature of identity and love. The book is narrated by Jane Weiss, a post-doctoral researcher in genetics at MIT who is obsessively seeking the genetic marker for Valentine’s Disease. Valentine’s is a fictional inherited neurodegenerative disease that bears a strong resemblance to Huntington ’s disease. Jane had a strong interest in science from a young age, but became fixated on Valentine’s Disease because her mother, grandfather, and uncles were victims and she and her much-loved sister, a dancer, are at risk. The novel is largely set in Cambridge, Massachusetts and MIT during the 1980’s and in an isolated Maine fishing village that foreshadows life in a post-apocalyptic pandemic zone.
Jane and her sister, Laurel, are dominated by the possibility of early disability and death. Valentine’s, like Huntington ’s disease, causes violent shaking, clumsiness, inability to eat, dementia, insanity, and death. There was no treatment available during the time period of the novel (and there is little available in the way of treatment now for Huntington’s, thirty plus years later). Jane notes in her narrative that she had to rush even when she wasn’t late because her mother had come down with the disease when she wasn’t much older than Jane was. Jane sees herself as the good daughter who cared for her mother during her final year and now works tirelessly to find the gene marker so that she and her sister can determine if they have inherited the bad gene. Laurel is convinced she has the gene mutation and hopes to die young, before she comes down with the symptoms of Valentine’s. She lives her life like a scavenger hunt, flitting from one interest to another, one relationship to another. Neither of the sisters plans to marry or have children. Knowledge that they are negative for the gene could permit them to contemplate having families.
The frustrating, laborious empirical method for identifying a gene marker in the 1980’s, decades before the mapping of the human genome, is vividly portrayed. Life in a high-level research lab populated with diverse eccentric characters and fraught with competition is vividly created.
Ethical dilemmas about the use of genetic testing to identify bearers of mutations when no treatment is available for the conditions they cause are explored and remain germane today. The victims of Valentine’s Disease who make blood samples available for the research are fully realized in the novel and the inability of the science to help them is tragic.
The role of genetics in determining identity is a key concern of the novel. The Weiss sisters believe Valentine’s is part of their identity. Who will they be if the marker is discovered and they find they don’t have the mutation? Will something essential be taken away? Laurel believes she would be ordinary without Valentine’s. Her inspiration for dance comes from her expected early death. If the human genome is ever mapped, Jane wonders, “Would you know yourself any better than you know yourself now?” “A map only fools you into thinking you know where you are.”