Eileen Pollack’s “A Perfect Life” is an analytical and emotional tale of the troubling reality of degenerative diseases, told through the lens of a young biologist hot on the trail of the mutant gene for the fated Valentine’s chorea, a rare and terrifying illness.

The novel’s young, bright protagonist, Jane Weiss, is linked to Valentine’s by more than her cutting-edge research: It’s the same disease that killed her mother. The tension and fear of the 50 percent chance that she, too, carries the gene for the illness complicate her life with an unhealthy level of doubtful self-involvement and dysfunctional relationships that snarl the story line.

Pollack, who has a degree in physics from Yale University, artfully simplifies the complexity of a precise science and transforms the mundanity of technical research into clear, clean prose. She showcases her talent in a “Bill Nye the Science Guy” way, making the study of DNA exciting and accessible.

In describing genetic mutations and the seemingly random way in which they manifest, she writes, “It was as if, long ago, God had handed out a set of colored handkerchiefs, two to each person. Some handkerchiefs were red, others were green, or yellow, or blue. In one family, everyone who had inherited a red handkerchief might carry the gene for Valentine’s, while those members of the family with other colors did not have the gene. In another family, the green handkerchief might be the lethal marker. In healthy families, a red or green handkerchief meant nothing at all, because no one had the gene.”

While Pollack’s clarity in writing about science deserves praise, her simple style falls flat when a small population largely affected by Valentine’s is discovered living on Spinsters Island off the coast of Maine.

A jackpot for genetic testing, the development is crucial for the plot line. However, Pollack’s depiction of the islanders as uneducated, poor, struggling with addiction and, perhaps, a little inbred, could be offensive to the real-life residents of Maine’s islands.

Upon arriving on the island, where she plans to recruit research subjects with beer, Jane sees “six shabby houses stood farther up the hill, their yards strewn with mangled bikes, toilet seats, and clothes wringers. How could anyone live in such a place?”

This type of superficial approach is rampant throughout the book and diminishes the larger themes, including research ethics and funding, animal testing and abortion, and the personal realities of dealing with tragedy and death, that at times read a bit glossed over.

Pollack tries to flesh out these themes by weaving them into the personal discussions between Jane and her love interest, Willie. The two, who both cared for and watched a parent die, are twisted together by Valentine’s like a double helix in an intimate, yet unsettling way.

Awkwardly, they become step-siblings when Jane’s father and Willie’s mother bond over losing their spouses and decide to marry.

Their unusual relationship, plus the shared stress of being potential victims of such a hopeless disease is complex, and the reader may find it hard to relate.

Still, this novel raises important questions at a time when advances in genetic testing present personal and societal choices around uncovering the mysteries of disease and what to do with the answers we might find.

Marae Hart is a graduate of the University of Iowa and the Salt Institute. She is a freelance writer and can be contacted at:

[email protected]