The Mother Gene by Lynne Bryant is a novel set in Charlotteville, Virginia, during one week in 2010, with significant leaps back in time to provide necessary backstory. The novel’s colorful cover (profiles of women and the familiar DNA helix) and the blurbs and cover copy prepared me to expect a story of women’s strength and hard choices surrounding maternity and reproductive rights. It didn’t prepare for an equally engrossing and tightly paced family mystery.
Three generations of strong-willed women form the core of The Mother Gene: Dr. Miriam Stewart, on the verge of retirement after a hard-fought, fulfilling career helping Appalachian women gain control over their bodies; her daughter Olivia, whom Dr. Stewart raised as a single mother and is now herself hoping to begin a family with wife Amy; and Miriam’s mother, Lillian, every bit as powerful a force in the community as her daughter, whom Miriam would now like to move safely out of lifetime home Hazel Hollow so she can keep a closer eye on her aging mother.
The three women clutch their secrets until they can’t, press their positions until they realize the futility of stubbornness, and ultimately realize that they need one another, not as crutches or baggage, not because of any flaws or weaknesses, but because they are family. Fully realized secondary characters—including Miriam’s neighbors, gay couple Dennis and Walt, who played a major role in helping Miriam raise Olivia on her own—add to the strong sense of the importance of community and family established throughout The Mother Gene.
The point of view shifts between the three women, providing the reader a lens on each of their stories such that by the end, their stories twine like the strands of the DNA helix, with a focus on their varying paths to career and motherhood. I won’t reveal more of the plot, so as not to spoil the suspense.
When a fellow doctor is part of a study that requires DNA analysis, Miriam agrees to participate. In this excerpt, she’s talking to her friend, colleague, and neighbor Dennis about it:
As she poured a cup of coffee for each of them she said, “I just always wished there was a blood test, you know?” She handed the mug to Dennis.
Dennis frowned. “A blood test for what?” He took the coffee and dumped in two packets of sugar. Always two. Unless he hadn’t slept much the night before. Then it was three or four.
Miriam stared out her office window. Students lounged in clumps in the spring-green grass. “I think I’d call it the Mother Gene,” she murmured.
Dennis stopped stirring and dropped into the side chair, setting his untouched coffee on the edge of her desk. “Good Lord, Miriam. Have you lost your mind?”
She turned and met his wide, incredulous eyes. Had she said that out loud? Stuffing the defensive feeling, she rallied. “Wait. Let me finish. I think this is a good idea.”
Their discussion continues, with Dennis providing plenty of reasons why identifying such a gene might prove unethical, and ultimately concluding, “Things don’t work out well when we try to control who has children.”
The reader understands that Miriam’s interest in the question is really a personal one. She wonders if she has the Mother Gene. She doubts she’s been the best mother for her daughter; and in that, she likely shares doubts and fears most mothers have experienced.
I recommend The Mother Gene for readers who care about women’s issues, reproductive rights, and affordable, accessible health care for underserved women. Beyond the issues, I recommend The Mother Gene as a well-written, absorbing novel with relatable characters and a page-turning mystery.