In a dystopian near future, Dr. Francine Burk has won a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship for her studies of bonobos' sexual habits and the implications for human beings, scholarship she is trying to pursue further at a research institute in Missouri when a natural disaster strikes.
Audrey Schulman has...written a riveting page-turner about bonobos — yes, the chimplike primates — and set the action in a very near and dire future ... Sharply observant of primate behavior (both human and animal), Schulman’s quick-moving and dramatic prose doesn’t really lend itself to ready quotation. Burke, like many a New Yorker, believes Midwestern humor consists mainly of 'knee-slapping guffaws, as intellectual as euchre.' More poetically, she recognizes that 'each important moment in life has about it a stillness, an extra beat, an awareness of the edges.' As a result, when she finds herself falling in love 'something inside her clicked. Some animal part of her brain.' Let me add that in creating white-knuckle tension or describing sudden violence, Schulman can rival any our of our more famous thriller writers.
Schulman sets her witty tale in a near future where many characters enjoy enhanced genetics and technological implants. Those who can’t afford such augmentations 'had begun to resemble groundhogs — a certain meaty compression, a tendency to breathe through the mouth' ... Theory of Bastards is lifted by its science, flecked like mica throughout the story ... The writer skillfully weaves fact with fiction. Her chapters are short, her sentences clipped and efficient, if not beautiful ... Despite a bit of limp philosophizing near the end, she brings insight, amusement and — in contrast to the bonobos — much delayed human gratification. Her protagonists don’t even hold hands until page 390. Still, she makes it worth the wait.
The misunderstood nature of female desire is at the center of her inquiries, both in how it guides the bonobos, who are ruled by a bald, benevolent dictator called Mama, and in how Burk experiences it in her own surgery-scarred body. Ms. Schulman is a swift, confident, engaging writer who wields her considerable research—the novel includes a five-page appendix documenting her sources—with a nimble touch. And when, near the conclusion, disaster inevitably strikes, it yields the unforgettable image of Burk, Stotts and a troop of randy bonobos trekking together across an evacuated middle America, the hope for the future found in the secrets of the evolutionary past.