Jane has an unusual passion. She is a paleobiologist who believes that bringing the woolly mammoth back to life will stop the ice from disappearing in the Artic. The theory is that when this prehistoric animal's great weight is once again tamping down the tundra, the ice will stay frozen. That is the hope among the paleobiologists in Jane's lab who are very carefully growing a woolly mammoth embryo that was developed from the body of a dead animal that Jane's daughters discovered. But Jane, a harried and grieving graduate student, is not a team player. She decides to strike out on her own with the help of a wealthy woman in Italy who has a private zoo that includes a female elephant that could be the surrogate. Jane steals the embryo.
Perhaps this unusual plot alone is enough to draw in a curious reader, but Ausubel adds three complicating factors named Eve, Vera, and Sal. Sal is Jane's deceased husband, a beloved man who died in a car accident on a narrow mountain road three years earlier, and Eve, age sixteen, and Vera, age fourteen, are her teenage daughters. They travel with Jane to all the exotic places she is assigned, because Jane is the only source of stability in their lives, and since their father's death, home is simply the place where Jane is living. The novel takes us to Siberia, Iceland, and Italy and the isolation that these new cultures impose on their lives makes them, more than most other families, dependent on each other for friendship and guidance. That is, until Iceland, which is where Eve falls in love and the bonds between them are tested.
What powers this still grieving family through foreign terrains is talk. They talk about everything, even Jane's project to bring the woolly mammoth back to life. And as the women bounce ideas back and forth, a body of common knowledge is created that includes the reader so that she too will be similarly invested in the outcome, similarly wary of the moral implications of Jane's actions, beginning with her theft of the embryo. Vera, Jane's younger, more stalwart daughter, questions the entire project because of that theft, but her older daughter, Eve, is willing to compromise for the sake of their mother's career, knowing that Jane must have a newsworthy accomplishment if she wants to secure a stable, salaried position once she graduates. The institute she works for is run by patronizing and powerful men who keep sending her to remote places around the world and routinely deny her the intellectual property rights she has earned.
The daughters, who have watched how their mother's accomplishments get robbed, accompany her on these assignments. They are used to being socially isolated, used to depending on each other. What powers them through is their ability to be honest. For a contemporary reader, their honesty is not only startling, it's deeply engaging.
Yet this isn't a dialogue heavy novel. Ausubel makes good use of her third person omniscient narrator, letting us see, in her lush descriptions of the surrounding landscapes, and frequent zooms into a character's interior, the complexities of these lives and the challenges they face. But when they talk, they talk in ways that are unusual in recent fiction. Instead of hiding their feelings, their conversations reveal messy, unresolved, highly emotional states of being. I found this inspiring. I noticed the different ways that each character speaks, how word choice, phrasing, and rhythm define their differences from one another.
"Jane sat on a pillow and crossed her legs. She said, 'I'm done with him being dead. I'm ready for him to be not dead anymore.'
'I'm mad at him for dying,' Eve said.
'Me too,' Jane said" (83).
The "him" they are referring to in this excerpt is Sal, Jane's husband and the girls' father and we can see how the phrasing reveals their burdens. Jane's I'm done with him being dead. I'm ready for him to be not dead anymore, is a distinctive expression. The mauling of word order and grammar create a child-like version of her very human wish and reveals her desire not to be the only adult. Eve's I'm mad at him for dying, is a more adult-like expression; she is taking responsibility for her feelings by stating them, while Jane's Me too, again is child-like. We're not conscious of these qualities as we read, but in a subconscious way, I believe they reinforce the dimensionality of the characters.
In Iceland, Eve falls in love with a man named Lars and with the help of Vera, manages to slip away at night to be with him.
"At two in the morning Jane got up, sleepless, and found Vera still awake in her chair, scrolling. 'What are you doing up? Is Eve asleep?' Vera should have lied, had agreed to lie. But tonight she did not lie. 'She's with Lars,' she said" (109).
Vera takes her mother to Lars' house where they find the couple "naked under a wool blanket with a sheepskin draped over. They were asleep. Arctic summer sun blacked out by heavy curtains. The couple did not wake up. They looked so warm.
"Vera turned to her mother and whispered, 'You have to wait in the car. I'll bring her.' Jane seemed relieved not to be the one to have to hand a bath towel to her daughter to cover herself, not to be the one to watch her eyes fill. Vera climbed into the bed and tucked herself in beside her sister. 'Evie,' she said, and Eve smiled.
"'Hi, love. What are you doing here?' Eve was so unembarrassed. She did not try to cover her skin or excuse herself. They had shared everything and now they shared this, or nearly did.
"'Mom is in the car. She knows. I need you to get up and get dressed and come home.'
"Eve opened her eyes and got up on her elbows. 'You told her.'
"'She asked.' Lars was awake too, confused by the second girl in his bed... 'Hi Vera,' Lars said.
"'Hi Lars,' she returned, but what she wanted to say was that he made her sister happier than she did and for this she would never forgive him" (109-110).
Throughout the novel, Vera is the clear and reliable witness, the steadfast reporter. Standing on the cusp of adulthood, she is the emotional center, the repository of hope, fear, and love, the follower who often bends to the stronger wills of her sister and mother. She is the character in this struggling family who is most objective, a child with a true moral compass who mediates the desires of her mother and sister, and yet is never afraid to speak what she knows. In the excerpt above, she makes the decision to betray Eve for two reasons, one is selfish, she wants to have Eve all to herself again, and the other is pragmatic. She doesn't want Eve to get pregnant and disappear into a life in Iceland when Vera and Jane return to California. She doesn't trust Lars or the intensity of Eve's feelings for him, and she doesn't approve of keeping a secret like that from their mother. All of this determines the word choice and syntax in the gentle command: "I need you to get up and get dressed and come home." I need you to do X, is an expression of authority. The three clauses separated by and that follow it, underscore that authority, showing that she will be patient with the process as her sister removes herself. And then, after she assumes the mantle of adulthood, she goes back to her rightful position as a child, needy, and self-concerned. Her Hi Lars mimics his greeting, but then there is an unspoken barb underneath it: but what she wanted to say was that he made her sister happier than she did and for this she would never forgive him. She keeps that to herself because Vera is the only one of the three women who can practice restraint.
The role of this youngest child is wonderfully complicated, and as the story unfolds, it is her solidity the reader depends on. Amid the swirling, ever-changing vistas, her solidity buoys her sister and mother in a family where the adult is often missing. The dialogue makes this tension come alive for the reader, letting us feel the subtle push and pull in these well-drawn relationships.
As part of the woolly mammoth experiment, they go to Italy where they stay on the estate of Jane's patron.
"'What were you two up to today?' Jane asked.
"'Drinking wine eating food,' Vera said.
"'Oh. A lot of wine?'
"'A European amount.'
Jane said nothing...
"'Are we grounded?' Vera asked. Vera wanted to be told what to do. She wanted someone to love her enough to give her a curfew and a firm talking-to. She wanted a wall to press against. 'Please,' she said.
"'You're going to have a headache tomorrow,' was what Jane finally said. She rubbed her eyes and looked at the ceiling. That was all" (121).
Two phrases grab our attention in this passage. Drinking wine eating food is notable for the absence of commas. That Vera names these activities without the normal pause between them suggests not only a sloppiness born of inebriation (we've learned that Vera is always a careful speaker), but a tone of braggadocio. She's goading her mother. And the dare in a European amount is clear.
Ausubel's novel reminds me that it's never enough to know what a character says, I must listen for the distinctive way each character speaks Syntax, word choice, rhythm and tone are elements to be manipulated when a writer wants to suggest the fears and desires that are always hidden in speech. Jane's you're going to have a headache tomorrow is bland and emotionless, a contrast to the loaded dare of Vera's lines. Her message is: You're on your own. I can't protect you from the consequences. There is also, in Jane's directness, a sense of exhaustion. She is preoccupied by other, more weighty things like the birth of an animal that doesn't fit into contemporary civilization, that more properly belongs to a distant, long-vanished era. As Jane wrestles with the implications of all she has accomplished, it's clear that two inebriated daughters, in the ranking of her worries, are at the bottom of her concerns.
Ausubel, Ramona. The Last Animal. New York: Riverhead, 2023.