Iris Surrey, the self-loathing heroine of Eva Hoffman’s The Secret, refers to herself as someone “fabricated, manufactured in a lab. . . an amphibian. . . moving between life and death.” These expressions of low self-esteem all occur after page sixty. Until then, Iris’s rancor is directed at “my mother” who becomes “Elizabeth,” the recipient of old letters Iris unearths from her “father.” But the key find is that of her birth certificate, the catalyst for obsessions that anchor—sink, actually—the next two hundred pages.
Although the jacket blurb keeps the “secret,” this review has no choice. “Method of Birth: Cloning.” Iris sits for an hour in the basement that has yielded the bad news. No tears are shed, only metaphors: “I was nothing more than a Xerox of her cellular matter, an offprint of her genetic code. A microchip off the old motherboard. . . not a real person. . . not anyone.”
So Iris flees Elizabeth, Chicago, and the adolescence that has been superintended by a surgical procedure. Like a self-possessed Riding Hood, to grandmother’s house she will go—to Manhattan and a Park Avenue address she remembers from the fateful letters. There she will begin a long quest to understand her cloned self which means to live Elizabeth’s history. She sees photos during awkward visits to the grandparents. She learns of her Aunt Janey and the favored sister—her mother—who stole Janey’s fiance. She sees the scientist who cloned her (“Aren’t you pleased to have turned out so well?”).
Hoffman’s mindscape, however, is not evocative enough of precise features of any terrain—psychic or futurist—to earn its spurs. The Secret is a hothouse where nothing grows, inhabited by a narrator and characters who are denied possibility. Eva Hoffman’s clamp is on them. It is not their fault they are limited; it is hers.