When a "Frankenbaby" Grows Up

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When I was in seventh grade, a classmate of mine learned something in biology that would lead her to the discovery that she was adopted. She learned that two blue-eyed people like her parents couldn’t produce a brown-eyed child like herself. The teacher advised her to discuss it with her parents. That, I thought, was fairly dramatic. Many years later, technology has changed. Kira Peikoff’s “Mother Knows Best” begins with 11-year-old Abby participating in a commercial cheek-swab genetic test as part of a class project and forming a social media profile on the company’s website. What Abby is about to learn is that she has 3 biological parents rather than the standard two.

The two people Abby knows as her parents have attempted to keep this information secret from her since her birth. Her internet usage is restricted, nobody in her home has a smartphone, and they live on the outskirts of a small town. Claire, her mother, is extremely isolated and seldom leaves the house. Abby and her classmates have developed theories as to why Claire never goes to her soccer games or even exits the car when picking her up. She seems afraid of meeting somebody.

That somebody would be Jillian, Abby’s third biological parent. Years ago, Claire lost a child at age 8 to mitochondrial disease. While she wanted to be a mother again, she never wanted to inflict that pain on another child or suffer that loss. She was intrigued by Dr. Robert Nash & Dr. Jillian Hendricks’ radical experimental technique that promised to prevent such an occurrence. Peikoff sympathetically, but analytically, details Claire’s motivation to participate in a dangerous and illegal genetic experiment in order to have a healthy baby, as well as Dr. Nash and Dr. Hendricks’ ambition.

When the conception is discovered, a media circus about the conception of a “Frankenbaby” ensues. Claire and Robert flee, and Jillian is left holding the bag, serving time in prison and becoming a pariah. Jillian, understandably, is quite bitter about this.

The novel jumps between the viewpoints of Abby, Claire, and Jillian, as well as between time periods. Abby is no monster. She is a normal, bright girl who knows that she’s being lied to and is determined to discover the truth. She is by far the most sympathetic character. That said, Peikoff takes pains to ensure that all the main characters’ motivations and desires are at least understandable. She keeps several balls in the air throughout the novel.

Ever since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, science fiction novelists have asked readers to consider the consequences of emerging ideas and technology. “Mother Knows Best” is firmly ensconced in that tradition. It is at least as much science fiction as it is suspense (in fact, it probably works better as science fiction). Fortunately, it isn’t preachy. It reads fast. Peikoff asks readers to draw their own conclusions about Abby and her family, even as she neatly wraps up the mysteries surrounding them.