Mendel's Dwarf

Mawer, Simon

Published by Harmony, 1998
ISBN 10: 0609601067 / ISBN 13: 9780609601068
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Synopsis: Dr. Benedict Lambert is an acclaimed British geneticist. His great-great-great uncle was Gregor Mendel, the reclusive Austrian monk who pioneered modern genetics. Ironically, Ben is the victim of one of nature's crueler jokes, a genetic mutation called achondroplasia. In other words, he is a dwarf. It has been his life's work to decode the gene that has made him how he is. Clever, sardonic, and vulnerable, he has another Jean in his life, Miss Jean Piercey, the woman with whom he hopes to find normal, reciprocated human love. But when rejection looms, Ben has to confront the ultimate temptation. Will he use science to seek revenge--and play God?
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Review: Dr. Benedict Lambert, the hero of Mendel's Dwarf, is very much a leg man, not that he has much choice in the matter. For the celebrated geneticist is a dwarf, a man resigned to being stared at for a little too long from some way up, and inured to bromides about inner beauty and outward bravery. As far as he's concerned, bravery requires choice--something he never had, since his father's sperm lacked "the command for height, for normality, for happiness and contentment." The beautiful swimmer did, however, pass on the genes for irony, sharp observation, and love, all of which Ben has in abundance in Simon Mawer's superb novel of academic twists and emotional turns.

A distant relative of the first geneticist, pea-pollinating Gregor Mendel, Ben has long used libraries as a refuge, and education as a way out (if not up). Still in his 20s, he's determined to identify the gene that made him "one of nature's practical jokes." Offered a post at the Royal Institute for Genetics, he immediately puts achondroplasia on the table. The director may well consider research into dwarfdom commercially unviable, but Ben knows better. His height will finally be of help: "There are lots of organizations interested," he insists. "The Little People of America, groups like that. When they see me coming they reach for their covenant forms."

Mawer interleaves Ben's research with the story of his affair (a "menage à une et demi") with the Institute's ill-fated assistant librarian, Jeane Piercey: "Mousy, of course. I feel that all librarians ought to be mousy. It should be a necessary (but not sufficient) qualification for the job. Mousy? Agouti? What, I wonder, is its genetic control? Perhaps it is tightly linked to the gene for tidiness." Mawer also juxtaposes Ben's passion with that of his legume-obsessed ancestor. Mendel, it turns out, pined for Frau Rotway, a married woman in the inevitable company of her own achondroplastic, a dachshund.

Mendel's Dwarf wears its considerable learning lightly--the author is a biologist--and readers will be alternately moved, charmed, and shocked by Ben's "astringent kiss of irony." Because the hero makes several difficult choices in the course of this fine novel, we admire his bravery, along with his resilience, at every turn. For Ben, the smallest gesture can become the largest (nods being "big absurd things, my head being about the same size as my body. You can't miss them. They are the gestural equivalent of screaming"). And alas, such acts are often poignantly beyond Ben's grasp: "I wanted to put my arm around her, of course, to bring her that fragile thing that we call comfort. But of course I couldn't reach."

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Title: Mendel's Dwarf
Publisher: Harmony
Publication Date: 1998
Binding: Hardcover
Book Condition: Used: Good

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