Let’s get the point of Laurence Gonzales’ novel out of the way right now: Lucy is about a girl who’s half human and half bonobo. Bonobos are a species of great apes, sometimes referred to as pygmy chimpanzees. Theoretically, they’re close enough relatives to humans to be able to interbreed, like horses and donkeys. Lucy’s biological father, a primatologist, was aware of this and after some ghastly experimentation managed to create her using a bonobo he’d named Leda. This after he’d tinkered with Leda’s genetics to make it more likely that her misbegotten pregnancy would come to term.

Now that we’ve got that matter settled, your reviewer is happy to report that Lucy is a compelling book, neither as macabre nor as kinky as one would fear. I’ve always figured that creatures with human intelligence coupled with an enraged chimpanzee’s lack of restraint would have turned the planet into radioactive rubble a long time ago, but Gonzales’ Lucy is an improbably delightful young lady: physically beautiful as well as loving, compassionate and highly intelligent. Yes, she barks at escalators until she learns better, violent rainstorms make her lose control, and she can pick up a grown man and toss him across the room, but other than that she’s human-normal. Indeed, one of the novel’s leitmotifs is Tom Petty’s “American Girl.”

Lucy is brought to America by Jenny Lowe, one of her father’s colleagues, after he and her mother, and much of her bonobo family, are murdered in the Congolese war. Lucy is fortunate not only to be adopted by Jenny, but to be surrounded by folks such as bubbly and steadfast Amanda, Harry—Jenny’s love interest—and even a wealthy couple who loan them their ranch when they have to go on the run from the inevitable, Mengele-level baddies.

Lucy pulls the reader in because of the sweet girl at its center, but the novel also makes one think about what it means to be human, and how love can be a bridge to understanding and acceptance.

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