The tradition of the noble savage is an old concern in literature. It’s often based around the idea of a Native American or other indigenous person who is perfectly in tune with nature and able to commune with the spirits, much better than corrupt men from the urban world. These characters are usually impossibly virtuous, and they tend to sacrifice everything—often including their own lives—to spread the cause of saving the Earth or their people. The type is a hackneyed, borderline-offensive one, and if it turned up in a modern novel, it would be laughed out of the room.
Except when it turns up in Laurence Gonzales’ Lucy, an incredibly shallow novel where all the characters are either pure good or pure evil, and the title character is an update of the noble-savage archetype dropped into the psychology of a 14-year-old human-ape hybrid girl. Lucy has received a number of reviews praising the originality of its central character, and it does contain some fun segments when Lucy realizes that life in a high school is just like life in a bonobo tribe, but those are few and far between.
Lucy is a girl created in an experiment by an isolated scientist as part of a bizarre effort to replace the human race with a different one that will be more attuned to nature, due to the bonobo DNA. Gonzales is careful to remove the scientist from the book—he’s killed in the first chapter—and he’s also careful to excise any possibility of human-on-ape sex from the narrative: The protagonist is a woman who happens upon Lucy in the jungle, takes her home, and is forced to adopt her.
It’s a terrific premise for a novel, but Gonzales is unable to make Lucy anything more than an absolutely perfect girl who stands as an example of all humanity could be, while those who oppose her are the worst our species has to offer. The novel breaks its other characters into those categories as well. Lucy’s friends are impossibly virtuous, and her enemies are stone-cold evil figures, barely disguised versions of all of the worst things the left feared about the George W. Bush administration, as though Gonzales had half a novel, then combined it with a diary he wrote on Daily Kos in 2005.
Compounding the character problems is the fact that everybody speaks in flat, declarative statements, saying exactly what they think or feel at any given moment. And Lucy tends to immediately win over everyone she meets. Her adoptive mother, Jenny, falls in love with her almost instantaneously, and her best friend, Amanda, is head over heels almost as quickly. Gonzales could do something interesting with this quality in his title character, but instead, he uses it to further enhance her saintliness.
It also doesn’t help that basically nothing happens in the novel, which is billed as a Michael Crichton-esque thriller. The characters worry that Lucy might be exposed, then struggle with how to handle it when she becomes a celebrity. The few action sequences, feel lazily dropped in, as though Gonzales felt obligated to include them. But there’s no build to any of this. All of it simply happens, often thanks to outside events that occur off the page and force the characters’ hands. Noble-savage tales are often about man’s inhumanity to man, but none of Gonzales’ characters are deep enough to register as actual people, rather than walking pieces of paper.