In His Genes (2013) by Robin Stratton is a slim novel at 183 pages. The story follows Cassie, a woman on the verge of 40, who works in a lab with the handsome do-gooder Dr. Jack Miller. Jack is tying to find the gene mutation linked to a rare disease called Voight’s that causes women to give birth to male babies who are covered in sores and screaming. A few days later, the mother, who was otherwise healthy, dies. Jack’s own wife died from Voight’s, and he’s racing against the clock to save his son, Jeremy.
At first, In His Genes felt like it followed standard protocol for a romance novel: the good-looking male boss and the woman who works way below her intellectual abilities for no money because she’s happy to be near the man. The old “this woman is so smart that she should be the boss, and honestly, he can’t do anything without her” thing. The familiar “she’s like a comfortable shoe” theme. Throw in the sexy, accomplished Dr. Renee Temple, with her excellent fake breasts, who visits Jack once per month for a good roll in the sheets, and we have everything we expect. Unfortunately, Dr. Temple is written with limited emotional range: uncaring, petty, catty. She was more like a paper doll than a person, so it was hard to hater her even though she forgets Jack even has a son.
Although the cozy relationship between Jack and Cassie is meant to give readers something to root for — that moment when they admit they’re meant for each other and he stops seeing Dr. Temple — I was uncomfortable with how much they “played house” as boss and employee. Jack calls Cassie to have her come to the hospital when his son has flare ups of Voight’s disease — and she goes. He expresses sadness over being unable to pay her for all the extra hours she works. They have dinner together at his house, and she loves son and kisses him goodnight. The whole relationship is so inappropriate that I felt uncomfortable. Cassie’s life is on pause while she waits for her boss to figure out she cares about him and is acting as wife and mother in his life. It’s another movie trope, one that has women wait and wait and wait — where’s the initiative? The self-respect?
It was early on I realized I wasn’t sure how to perceive Cassie. First, I couldn’t keep track of her age (almost 40) because I kept thinking she was a post-grad student, someone in her early 20s. Whenever I did remember her age, I couldn’t figure out what she did before she worked in Jack’s lab. She’s only been there for 2 years. It’s weekends, late nights, almost no pay, so Cassie certainly works like a grad student. I felt sad that yet another woman was putting herself in financial jeopardy to play second trombone in the hopes that her boss would open his eyes and fall in love with her.
Cassie is supposed to be a nice woman: her parents love her, her boss loves her, her boss’s son loves her, she’s donating tons of her time for science (albeit so she can be close to her boss). Cassie is supposed to be a happy woman who was “a reader, straight-A student, volleyball star [who] attended Boston College on a scholarship [and] majored in anthropology.” Yet, at times, Cassie was petty enough that I was surprised by the extent of it. Jack’s sister, Margaret, quit her job to care for Jeremy. She’s an MIT grad who pays attention to the benefits of nutrition and rest to prevent flare ups. Still, Cassie is jealous of this woman, as if Jack may fall in love with his sister. Cassie mentally criticizes:
Tall and slender with long, glossy dark hair, [Margaret would] be pretty if not for her crabby pinched-up expression. Rarely smiles, never dates. Destined to be bitter and alone. I look away. Her choice has nothing to do with me.
I just… really can’t get behind this sort of negative criticism of other women, especially when it concerns a woman’s appearance or her status in relation to a man. Was Stratton trying to make Cassie seem petty?
But Stratton throws readers a plot twist: Palmer, a guy in his 50s performing Beat poetry in a cafe who is able to magically fix Cassie’s car when the battery dies on a cold winter night. He’s weird yet caring, and I hoped that the introduction of Palmer would steer the story away from the familiar “underling who loves her boss” trope. Palmer appears everywhere without reason, like he’s stalking Cassie, but he’s kind and takes interest in her work (and even knows about the incredibly rare Voight’s disease). But he won’t take her to his apartment. Has Stratton saddled us with the married adulterer theme? No, Palmer is something entirely different, which I won’t describe because it delves into spoiler territory. The plot heads into some unbelievable directions, such as when a VIP gets Voight’s and Palmer works some magic on Jack’s suffering son.
The book tries to compare science with belief (not necessarily religion), which I felt wasn’t fully executed, make the comparisons unclear. Palmer, who represents belief, wants Cassie to trust without proof, but the science in the book is more about DNA strands and other jargon, instead of principles and hypotheses, so it’s hard to see how the two contrast.
I have a couple of other Robin Stratton books that I plan to read, but for now I would recommend choosing her novel On Air for the humorous comments, genuine emotion, and original plot, instead of In His Genes.