Cover image for The secret : a novel
The secret : a novel
Hoffman, Eva, 1945-
Personal Author:
First Public Affairs edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Public Affairs, [2002]

Physical Description:
265 pages ; 22 cm
General Note:
Originally published: London : Secker & Warburg Random House, c2001.
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Iris Surrey seems to have a perfectly normal childhood. She lives with her mother in a rambling wooden house, in a small college town not far from Chicago. But something isn't quite right in her perfect, bell-jar world. There may be something wrong with her mother. Or with her. Or with her mother and her. Small disturbances lead Iris to suspect a deeper peculiarity in the very fabric of her life. Something not quite...natural. Or authentic. But what does that mean? You are what you think you are, aren't you? Who is to judge the nature of your nature, your character, your reality, except you, the subject yourself? Unless you aren't real enough to know in the first place.

In this gripping debut novel, writer Eva Hoffman uses the near future to reflect on the fast-moving present and to explore various kinds of secrets: intimate secrets and family secrets, the kinds of secrets that can be decoded from clues, and the kind that only lead to more tantalizing questions about the nature of consciousness and self-knowledge. This is a philosophical fable about an uncannily powerful mother-daughter bond and a young woman's quest for identity. The Secret explores ancient conundrums of selfhood and the profound challenges posed by contemporary science to our most cherished notions of individuality.

Author Notes

Eva Hoffman was born in Krakow, Poland and eventually emigrated to Canda with her family. She received a Ph. D. from Harvard University.

She taught literature and was the editor of the New York Times Book Review.

Hoffman is the author of such books as Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language (1989) and Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews (1997).

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Iris lives comfortably in a small Midwest town circa 2020 with her beautiful, loving mother, but as she enters adolescence, she wonders why her mother refuses to talk about her father at all. And that's not all that's distressing: there's also the eerie resemblance between mother and daughter and their almost paranormal connection, which they call the "Weirdness." The reader figures out that Iris is a clone long before first-time novelist Hoffman's troubled narrator does, but Hoffman, author of Shtetl (1997), is right to proceed slowly because her purpose in this elegant, smart, and unsettling tale is to imagine as acutely as possible what life would be like for a simulacrum, a "hand-made creature," a monster. These are terms Iris lashes herself with once she discovers the truth and leaves home to find her estranged parents/grandparents and to see if other "non-selfers" exist. Hoffman succeeds brilliantly in creating a provocative, cautionary coming-of-age story set in a technologically ruled near-future when "human design" threatens to undermine every cherished idea about what it means to be a human being. Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

Can a clone contain a new human soul or just a photocopy? Hoffman brilliantly meditates on this mystery in her auspicious fiction debut as she examines the bond between Iris and Elizabeth Surrey, which gives new meaning to the well-worn term "my mother myself." Iris's search for identity begins when the teen discovers her birth in 2005 was achieved via cloning. Iris's single mom, Elizabeth, fled Manhattan to the Midwest to rear Iris after becoming estranged from her parents and sister. They live a quiet, symbiotic life until Iris turns 12 and her mother falls in love with Steven, a professor, who becomes disturbed by the unnatural closeness of the two and leaves. It's not long before Iris, in a tailspin of heart-wrenching confusion, flees home to see if she is more than just an extension of someone who is "not quite a mother and more than one: home, sibling, the larger part of myself, as much me as my limbs or bloodstream." Unraveling the secret of self takes her on a quest not easily ended. The relentless first-person viewpoint showcases the emotional and spiritual ramifications of being a cloned child: "I was her, I was her, I was her... Then who was I, who was she, what had she done? Did she steal my soul, my very self, or did she give me her own, by an unspeakable act of black magic?" Some SF readers may find the philosophical musings old hat, but wiser ones won't. (Nov. 5) Forecast: As the author of three books of serious nonfiction, Lost in Translation, Exit into History and Shtetl, Hoffman should find more of a mainstream than a genre audience, despite this novel's SF elements. As the imprint suggests, this is a novel of ideas in the tradition of 1984 and Brave New World. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The time is 2022, the place is Chicago, and Iris Surrey has an unusually close relationship with her chilly mother, Elizabeth. At 17, Iris is wearying of the odd stares she triggers in others, especially when her look-alike mother is with her. Iris wants to learn the identity of her father, which, alas, is not possible; the reader will figure out before Iris does that she is the product of genetic engineering. When Iris uncovers the truth, she goes on an emotional rampage, intent on tracking down any blood relatives in the hope that they will make her feel more authentic. The results are painful, for Iris's kin are unable to embrace what they see as an uncanny freak of science. It is only through a relationship with a sympathetic young man that Iris finds respite. Those who shrug off today's headlines regarding imminent human cloning would be wise to read this thoughtful, philosophical treatment of the devastating effects a wholly fatherless state can trigger. An uneasy look at the potential fallout from biological tampering, this first novel by nonfiction author Hoffman (Shtetl) is ripe for lively book discussion. One minor quibble: British spellings abound, which can be disconcerting, given the setting. Still, very much recommended.-Beth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



It seemed my bad luck to keep finding myself at airports at night. I walked through O'Hare's endless corridors and out into a flat darkness, punctuated dimly by yellow, unbeckoning lights. Lights receding into ceaseless stretches of highway, of endlessly unspooling, unhomed space. The taxi with its driver whom I'd woken from his nap, sped along the highway soundlessly, encountering only the occasional flashes of another car. At this hour, it seemed as if the world had become uninhabited. On the outskirts of our town the green sign of the electric recharge station was muted to near extinguishment. The taxi created narrow funnels of light as we drove through the dark streets, past the familiar outlines of the college buildings. I directed the driver to our neighborhood, sensing the contours of the streets through the rustling trees, the silvery sculpture in somebody's yard, the sudden hiss and yowl of mating cats. I felt both illicit and safe as long as I was in the taxi. Then we were at the house, its silhouette briefly bathed in the taxi's reflectors. I paid and got out. "Will you be all right?" the driver asked. I think he was a bit spooked by our quiet stretch of exurbia. "Sure," I said, and he drove away. The house was plunged in darkness again, its blind windows gaping like holes. I tried to fight off the Weirdness, the familiar strange sensation at the back of my neck, the opening into a cavernous darkness. I rang the doorbell. There was no answer, but the light in her room went on. I rang the doorbell again. I heard her coming downstairs. The door opened. She looked a mess. Her hair was uncombed and she was wearing a half-open bathrobe. Her face was slightly puffy. There was a quality of dishevelment about her I'd never seen before. We stood facing each other silently, taking in each other's presence, our mirroring misery. Her eyes were as wretched as mine. Her eyes were still the mirror into which I could walk and drown. She put her arms around me wordlessly, and for a moment I gave in to her familiar warmth as to a luxury. To vanquish all distance; to stop supporting my unsupportable separateness-the temptation was almost too much. Then, as if it were my very last chance, as if it were crucial to use every ounce of my strength to accomplish this, I pulled away. "Your mother died today," I said coldly. Excerpted from The Secret by Eva Hoffman Copyright © 2002 by Eva Hoffman Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.