The Evolution of Jane

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Recently divorced Jane Barlow has been sent by her mother on a tour of the Galapagos Islands to recover her peace of mind. These are the islands to which nineteenth century naturalist Charles Darwin traveled on the famous voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, the ship sent by the British navy to map the southernmost coastline of South America. It was on the Galapagos Islands, an area that had not been studied by scientists, that Darwin had the opportunity to study the infinitesimally slow changes in plant and animal life and develop his theory of evolution through natural selection.

Jane, an inquisitive and intellectually curious young woman, finds herself following in Darwin’s footsteps in a group tour of those same islands. She gets a shock immediately on arrival when she finds out that the tour leader is Martha Barlow, her old childhood friend and cousin. As children, the two of them spent a series of idyllic summers together in the seaside town of Barlow, New England, named after the founding family fathers. However, they have had no contact for ten years, ever since Martha, without any explanation, broke off their friendship when they were both fifteen years old. Since that time, Jane has racked her brains to figure out what caused the split between them, but after all these years, she is none the wiser.

The central metaphor of the book is the question of how a species is defined. Jane, who has been fascinated by Darwin and his theories since she was a girl, puzzles over this again and again. How is it that mockingbirds, who all look similar, in fact make up several different species? Conversely, why are a greyhound and a Pekinese, who look so dissimilar, members of the same species? Who decides what belongs to one species and not to another, and how? What is the difference between a species and a subspecies?

Was the wing of one fly slightly bigger than the wings of its cousins? How much bigger did the wing have to be to make the fly a member of a new species? If the wing differed just a smidgen, perhaps the fly was a member of a subspecies. Or could it simply be an individual of the same species which varied slightly from its peers, a fly with a big wing?

The running joke is that no one on the trip takes Jane’s questions very seriously. However, Jane herself does, and her inquiry is related to the other question that occupies her: the evolution of friendship, specifically of her friendship with Martha. Originally, she and Martha were not only related but also joined virtually as one in tight friendship. Yet at some point they bifurcated and became two separate, in a sense unrelated, entities, two species rather than one. As Jane tries to understand the nature of the evolution of species, of how one thing becomes another, she also grapples with the equally mysterious question of how a human relationship can change into something very different from what it formerly was.

The story itself, which is told in Schine’s finely honed and witty prose, unfolds on two levels. On one level, there are frequent flashbacks to Jane’s childhood, showing the two girls meeting for the first time and becoming friends. The relationship as sketched by Schine is charming and thoroughly believable, exactly capturing the way the child sees the world and the people she encounters in it—naïveté held together by a weave of childlike logic.

To sustain the reader’s interest, this part of the narrative is kept going by frequent references to a family feud that goes back two generations. Although the feud was part of the landscape of the young girls’ lives, young Jane was never able to find out what it was about, although she and Martha would jokingly exchange theories about its origins. As a grown woman, Jane wonders whether the family feud had something to do with the sudden rupture in her childhood friendship.

The second level of the narrative is the exploration of the Galapagos Islands undertaken by Jane and the group of people with whom she finds herself thrown together. Schine enjoys tossing in a wealth of minutiae about Darwin and about plant and animal life on the Galapagos, making it interesting by filtering it through the speculative, questioning mind of her protagonist. Jane cannot read a fact in her guidebook or observe a natural phenomenon without its triggering ideas and questions. Her mind also goes back and forth from natural selection to human relationships. Regarding the family feud, for example, the habit of the blue-footed boobies (large brown birds) she observes is for the oldest chick to push out the younger ones from the nest. Perhaps, Jane...

(The entire section is 1892 words.)