by Karen CullottaOctober, 1998
For the self-absorbed, albeit, likable heroine of Catherine Schine's new novel, The Evolution of Jane, the rites of friendship can be summed up as survival of the fittest. Indeed, Darwin's theory of evolution provides not only a philosophical context but a geographical backdrop as well.
Fresh from a rather boring divorce, Jane is sent to the Galapagos Islands by her mother, who recalls her daughter's fascination with science. Of course, like many well-intentioned parents, Jane's mother is harboring fond memories of her daughter as a nature-loving child. Nonetheless, Jane doesn't have the heart to shun her mother's offer of a free vacation. Jane arrives in the Galapagos with optimistic visions of finding her true self, only to discover her nemesis waiting at the airport. No, Jane's ex-husband is not amid the island's tortoises and parched soil. Instead, Jane encounters her long-lost childhood friend, Martha Barlow, a tour guide for the eclectic group of travelers.
Martha is perky, poised, and pleasantly pedantic, the polar opposite of her morose and somewhat mean-spirited former buddy Jane, who also happens to be a distant cousin. And therein lies the most enjoyable and interesting sub-plot of Schine's novel the legendary Barlow family feud.
Schine is adept at creating seamless transitions from the present the Galapagos excursion to the past, when Jane and Martha were best friends. When the novel reaches back to the past, depicting a pair of dysfunctional childhoods, Schine is at her best. Despite Jane's tendency to whine, it is hard not to sympathize with her plight. For Jane is crushed by the weight of her insecurity and paranoia, especially in regards to Martha, who unceremoniously dumped her best friend after high school.
As Jane struggles to understand Martha's abrupt departure from her personal universe, the tenuous bonds of friendship are held hostage by the sinuous strands of DNA. Thus, the hardiest species and friendships survive and flourish, as the weak flounder and fail.
Still, the denoument of the novel is pure Jane, at her worst and best on every level. When the sea-sick heroine finds redemption, it is not without a price. Nothing is black and white in Schine's novel, and the true nature of the characters is a subtle shade of Galapagos gray. While the resolution leaves the reader clinging to at least a few unanswered questions, Schine has delivered a surprise ending that makes this literary trip to the Galapagos a journey worth taking.
Karen Ann Cullotta is a writer in Chicago.