Mendel’s Dwarf

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Dr. Benedict Lambert is a molecular biologist who led his class at Oxford University. He is the great-great-great nephew of Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics and he was born with achondroplasia, a condition in which the cartilage at the ends of the long bones does not develop properly, causing dwarfism. Despite his dwarfism, Lambert—as he indicates is true of all with his condition—has normal sexual organs and desires, and he eventually manages an exhausting affair with a young married woman who is enduring a difficult marriage. Their relationship concludes tragically for all concerned.

Author Simon Mawer develops Lambert’s story with great skill in MENDEL’S DWARF, alternating its stages with vignettes from the career of Gregor Mendel, the Austrian monk whose brilliant work— unacknowledged in his lifetime—enabled Lambert’s own career and his obsession with the genetic roots of his achondroplasia. Mawer provides for Mendel his own bittersweet romance with a married woman, a tender, Chekhovian romance that always remains confined to silences and flushed cheeks but competes with Lambert’s story for the reader’s interest.

Mawer is himself an Oxford-trained zoologist, and he provides mini-lectures, complete with footnotes and illustrations, to summarize Mendel’s experiments and to clarify just what Lambert is up to in his laboratory work. Mawer sneers at students of genetics and studies of IQ, asserting that “Genes code for protein. They don’t do anything else, and there simply isn’t any protein with a domain marked ’intelligence’.” He backhands biologist Trofim Lysenko (an easy target) and reports that DNA screening reveals that “something like ten percent of the children of happily married couples have in fact been fathered by ... a different male.”

An engrossing book in every aspect.