Book Review: Girl One by Sara Flannery Murphy
By Doreen SheridanJune 1, 2021
Girl One by Sara Flannery Murphy is a spellbinding supernatural thriller that combines the provocative imagination of Naomi Alderman’s The Power with the propulsive, cinematic storytelling of a Marvel movie, digging deep into women’s extraordinary power and revealing an unassailable truth—so much strength lies in numbers.
Throughout history, there have been tales of human parthenogenesis: an asexual form of reproduction where, most commonly, women have gotten pregnant and given birth without the biological contribution of a man. Most such instances have been relegated to myth, partly because public opinion spanning millennia has viewed almost all such births as monstrous, an affront to the status quo. So when Dr. Joseph Bellanger announces that he’s facilitated not one but nine virgin births in the secluded Vermont compound of the Homestead, the reaction is both instantaneous and unsurprisingly heated.
Accusations range from scientific quackery to sheer moral outrage, even as the world seems enraptured by these nine mothers, their nine daughters, and the one man who made it all happen. But life on the Homestead goes from communal bliss to suffocating dread as protestors show up on their doorstep, terrorizing the inhabitants despite Dr. Bellanger’s best efforts.
The lingering fascination that surrounded us could turn dark too easily. We were Bellanger’s great unfinished works. He’d guarded his secrets, the nine of us, so carefully[,] wary of the death threats—people who wanted to vanquish us like vampires, cut off our heads, burn us at the stake. Then there were the calmer and no less chilling threats from people who wanted to rehome us with normal families. All of us had been born under the shadow of those threats, but they loomed darkest over Bellanger himself. He was the one who’d started it, after all. If he were shot, stabbed, poisoned, burned, then his unholy work would go with him.
Unwilling to present such a centralized target, mothers begin fleeing the Homestead with their daughters even before a conflagration breaks out that takes the lives of Dr. Bellanger and the youngest of the children. A prominent protestor is jailed for arson and murder, and the surviving women scatter around the country, each pair grappling with the aftermath of their collective notoriety.
Fast forward nearly two decades later to 1994, and the pair known as Mother and Girl One—the first in the birthing order but also, seemingly, in Dr. Bellanger’s favor—are living more or less in privacy in small-town Illinois. Margaret Morrow prefers a life of seclusion, but her daughter (and our narrator), Josephine, dreams of continuing her “brainfather’s” work and is enrolled in her first year of medical school at the University of Chicago. A coolness has grown between mother and daughter over this:
“I saw you in the paper,” Emily said. “You’re becoming a doctor too?”
“Oh, I’m not like those men,” I said quickly. I was used to explaining my ambitions to professors, to colleagues, to reporters. I’d cataloged the whole range of reactions. The people who congratulated me, both sincere and fake, who lectured me or condescended to me, who doubted me or laughed at me. Those last were my favorites, the ones I could defy. But Emily French just looked at me like she was disappointed in me. There’d only been one other person to react like that so far. My mother.
When a fire eerily similar to the one that destroyed the Homestead breaks out at Margaret’s suburban home and Margaret herself goes missing, Josie has to track her down with the help of the other Mothers and Girls, who display various shades of reluctance in aiding her. They all have complicated relationships with Margaret, Dr. Bellanger, and the Homestead. As Josie travels cross-country to meet with them, she discovers that they’re also keeping secrets that could shatter the very foundation of everything she’s believed about herself. And that’s even before she realizes that perhaps the myths of monstrosity have an even deeper meaning—and that she and the other Girls are capable of far more than she ever believed.
This twisty, fast-paced thriller raises some really terrific questions regarding ethics in science and media, especially as they relate to feminism and female agency. Sara Flannery Murphy examines how even unwitting complicity with patriarchal power structures can restrict and damage us all regardless of gender. I was impressed, too, by the way she considered the many complicated relationships possible between mothers and daughters. The novel’s supernatural elements are also handled well, never overwhelming the medical thriller aspects, and the discussions of sexuality ground the whole in an everyday realism that seems extraordinarily relevant even in this third decade of the 21st century.