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The Philosopher's Apprentice: A Novelby James Morrow
"Morrow's intellectual fervor irradiates The Philosopher's Apprentice, but the warmth and empathy that characterized The Last Witchfinder is absent. Satire needs to sing as well as sting." Elizabeth Hand, Washington Post Book World (read the entire Washington Post Book World review)
Synopses & Reviews
A brilliant philosopher with a talent for self-destruction, Mason Ambrose has torpedoed a promising academic career and now faces a dead-end future. Before joining the ranks of the unemployed, however, he's approached by a representative of billionaire geneticist Dr. Edwina Sabacthani, who makes him an offer no starving ethicist could refuse. Born and bred on Isla de Sangre, a private island off the Florida coast, Edwina's beautiful and intelligent adolescent daughter, Londa, has recently survived a freak accident that destroyed both her memory and her sense of right and wrong. Londa's soul, in short, is an empty vessel — and it will be Mason's job to fill it.
Exploring his new surroundings, our hero encounters a lush Eden abounding in bizarre animals and strange vegetation engineered by Edwina and her misanthropic collaborator, Dr. Vincent Charnock. And Londa, though totally lacking a conscience, proves a vivacious young woman who quickly captivates her new teacher as he attempts to recalibrate her moral compass with the help of Western civilization's greatest ethical thinkers, living and dead.
But there's trouble in this tropical paradise. Mason soon learns that he isn't the only private tutor on Isla de Sangre, nor is Londa the only child in residence whose conscience is a blank slate. How many daughters does Edwina Sabacthani really have, and how did she bring them into being?
Undaunted by these mysteries, Mason continues to instruct Londa, hoping that she can lead a normal life when she eventually ventures forth into human society. His apprentice, however, has a different agenda. Her head crammed with lofty ideals, her heart brimming with fearsome benevolence, and her bank account filled to bursting, Londa undertakes to remake our fallen world in her own image — by any and all means necessary.
"With a talking iguana, a tree with a heart and an army of clones created from aborted fetuses, Morrow's latest is a treat for readers willing to take an imaginative leap. Philosophy ABD (all but dissertation) Mason Ambrose takes a job tutoring 17-year-old Londa Sabacthani after withdrawing his Ph.D. candidacy during a heated dissertation defense. Londa lost her moral center after a head injury, according to her mother, Edwina, a molecular geneticist with a reputation for being as 'smart as God,' and it's Mason's highly compensated duty to help Londa regain her conscience. Soon after arriving on Edwina's remote Florida Keys island home, Mason discovers a separate estate where five-year-old Donya lives with two tutors hired after she lost her 'rectitude' in a bicycle accident. Donya claims Edwina as her mother and, like Londa, believes she is an only child. The three tutors, sensing something grossly amiss, begin snooping and uncover a fertility scheme akin to a Dr. Frankenstein experiment. Meanwhile, Londa ventures out into the world and seeks to apply her newfound morality to American capitalism through whatever means necessary. Morrow guides readers through preposterous plot points without sacrificing plausibility. Strong characters, shots of humor and an unpredictable narrative make this a winner." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"James Morrow is a literary swashbuckler, his proud vessel a stalwart craft composed of rationalist thought and biological determinism, his weapons a rapier intelligence and a Swiftian gift for satire. Morrow's best novels expose the dangers of religious fanaticism while allowing a glimpse of the frailties that make us susceptible to extremes of belief. 'The Last Witchfinder' was a rollicking tour... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) de force, a picaresque journey through the Age of Enlightenment that contained, among other delights, a talking copy of Newton's 'Principia Mathematica,' as well as a randy portrayal of the young Benjamin Franklin. Alas, Morrow's new novel, 'The Philosopher's Apprentice,' trades rapier for battle-axe in its attack on creationists, technophobes and scientists too eager to embrace the brave new world of genetic engineering. Its protagonist, Mason Ambrose, is a young doctoral candidate who is offered a job as the private ethics tutor of an amnesiac teenager named Londa, for a cool $100,000 a year. Quicker than you can say 'Lost,' Ambrose is whisked off to a tropical retreat, Isla de Sangre (Blood Island). There a mysterious molecular geneticist named Edwina claims her daughter's dysfunction is the result of a swimming accident on Londa's 17th birthday. '"Gradually it became clear," her mother explains, "that Londa's childhood recollections weren't the only casualty — she'd also lost her ability to distinguish right from wrong. Depravity is not a diagnosis one makes lightly, but the evidence seems unequivocal."' Londa spews facts like a logorrheaic 'Wikipedia'; she also sets fire to household items, throws rocks at windows and shows grave unkindness to animals. Amnesia-schmesia: Edwina's explanation will be suspect to anyone familiar with 'Frankenstein,' 'Blade Runner' or 'The Island of Dr. Moreau.' Isla de Sangre provides a lush, memorably creepy setting for the book's first section, enlivened by sentient trees and the eccentric teachers hired to tend Edwina's offspring. But the spell of these early chapters is broken by a turgid course in ethics, from Aristotle to Stoicism to Epicureanism and beyond, forced upon Londa, and the reader. Somewhere in Ambrose's lesson on Sartrean existential freedom, rebellious readers may long for the 'Philosophers' Drinking Song' belted out by the cast of Monty Python. Things go all pear-shaped, as the Brits say, after Edwina dies. Londa, armed with the fierce sense of right and wrong instilled in her by Ambrose, founds a utopian community, Themisopolis (City of Justice), where she develops patents for advanced technologies that will aid humankind. Yet humans have a habit of not wanting what others think is best for them, especially if it involves genetic engineering and stem cell research. An attack on Themisopolis is launched, and the resulting battle — involving creatures grown from aborted fetal tissue — spurs Londa to forsake her utopian ideals and embark upon her own crash-and-burn course in ethics. Morrow's intellectual fervor irradiates 'The Philosopher's Apprentice,' but the warmth and empathy that characterized 'The Last Witchfinder' is absent. Satire needs to sing as well as sting. Elizabeth Hand's most recent novel is 'Generation Loss.'" Reviewed by Elizabeth Hand, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"[A] tumultuous take on humanity, philosophy and ethics that is as hilarious as it is outlandish....[A] wildly ambitious morality play, a shrewd amalgamation of the sacred and the profane. Tips its hat with style to Mary Shelley and George Bernard Shaw." Kirkus Reviews
"[A] brilliant comedy of manners....Morrow is an inventive writer possessing a fine comic sensibility; the story is infused with wit and brio....Enthusiastically recommended." Library Journal (Starred Review)
For Mason Ambrose, a failed philosopher with lots of smarts but not much common sense, the prospect of tutoring a lonely adolescent for a small fortune seems irresistible. But all is not as it seems, in this beguiling book from one of America's premier satirists.
About the Author
James Morrow is the author of nine previous novels, including The Last Witchfinder. He lives in State College, Pennsylvania.
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