The Evolution of Jane by Cathleen Schine

Very occasionally have I read a book that immediately set me off a quest to understand, in essence, how this author  came up with that idea. So it was with The Evolution of Jane.

I’d heard of but avoided this one till now as I’d assumed it was one of those Jane Austen books currently infesting our planet featuring Austen as detective or romantic heroine or spy or witch doctor.  Take the trouble to create an original heroine, why don’t you? Cathleen Schine’s novel is, however, a very different beast,  at whose heart lies an ingenious thesis that should thrill any academic’s soul.

The Evolution Of Jane

As a child, Jane Barlow Schwartz had a best friend/kindred spirit/twin soul in her cousin Martha Barlow. And one day, the friendship ended Just Like That. Jane has always been haunted by the absence of a good reason, and her inability to pinpoint the moment when the drift began. When the adult Jane visits the Galapagos Islands, she decides to  apply Darwin’s theory of evolution to her life so as to decode her own family tree, and to understand why she and Martha, despite sharing everything (even family)  in their childhood, evolved into two different species, as it were.

Nice, eh? So, where did Schine, who trained as a medieval historian, get her idea? Here’s a partial answer I found in an interview :

One of the most provocative aspects of The Evolution of Jane is the investigation of Charles Darwin’s writings. Jane frequently applies Darwinism to her own life—and the results often depress her. Do you believe Social Darwinism to be a reality—even if a highly unfair one? What role does it play in the context of human relationships? Why did you choose to write about friendship with Darwinism as a backdrop?

Social Darwinsim is like astrology, I think. It’s a pseudo scientific system based on a crude and wrongheaded reading of a subtle insight. Jane’s musings are based on Darwin’s thoughts and the ideas and controversies of evolutionary theorists who followed him, but they are used as metaphors, not as real explanations. I wasn’t interested in the nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw stuff, which is the heart of Social Darwinism. I wasn’t even interested in sexual selection. It wasn’t what the book was about. The book was about change, and that’s what evolution is about, really.

The rest of this interview is here.

Schine’s narrative sympathizes with and criticizes Jane simultaneously,  inviting us to share her genuine hurt at the loss of her friendship while making no excuses for her often self-willed ignorance; Jane is an interesting but not entirely appealing character. Despite her cleverness, the adult Jane thinks like a child, assuming that she is at the center of every event and incessantly questioning the place of everything else; the title refers at least in part to Jane’s need to grow up.

Now, I’m a sucker for a likeable protagonist; I want lead characters that I’d like to befriend.  (Of course I read and admire novels which don’t conform to this pattern, but it’s clear to me where my preferences lie, and I am old enough to be unapologetic about them. )  But the point of this book is much bigger than Jane–while the characterizations are excellent, the real hook is the evolution metaphor.  The central conceit could so easily seem strained, but Schine’s control of her material is faultless. The parallels  never seem forced, and whenever Jane pushes the argument indiscriminately, whenever her introspections turn narcissistic, one of the other characters calls her on it.  Schine possess the too-rare ability to distance herself from her writing–she anticipates our potential skepticism/intimidation at every turn, and she cares enough about her readers to avoid such reactions. We learn about Jane’s self-discovery and her discovery of Darwin’s theory in tandem, and the writing is so intelligent that both are equal pleasures. Here’s a typical passage:

“Cladistics is concerned only with that moment at which one group breaks away from its parent group…. Ancestors are tracked back through history, through prehistory. Cladisticians are not interested in genetics or populations in their environments or adaptation. They only look at ancestral lineage. Like WASPs from Philadelphia.”

“The shabby genteel school of evolutionary thought,” I said.

When we trace my family back, we begin like this: me.

And I loved, loved Schine’s oddball humor. Do you find it funny that Jane’s room-mate aboard the cruise ship is one Gloria Steinham (no relation)? And that Gloria’s parting gift to Jane is a pair of earrings possibly carved from solidified pigeon excrement? My husband, who knows his duty, always laughs at  the correct places, but he didn’t  move a muscle when I read those bits aloud. I suppose this book is not for everyone, but it could have been written just for me.

The Evolution of Jane By Cathleen Schine (author website )

Houghton Mifflin (October 1, 1998)

Genre: Literary Fiction


The lovely Ari of Reading in Color gave me this Beautiful Blogger Award.

Thank you, Ari! I’m not  sure I’m equipped to pass it on, but I’m very grateful indeed!