The Real Love Story in The Daughter of Doctor Moreau
Review by Anna Mangnus
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s newest novel The Daughter of Doctor Moreau is a beautifully atmospheric novel that follows the coming of age of Carlota Moreau, though the driving force of the novel is Carlota’s effort to keep Yaxaktun – the hacienda where she lives – from being taken from her or wholly destroyed. It is a story of sheltered childhood, questioning one’s assumptions and trusting one’s gut, subtly weaving in themes of feminism and anti-colonialism. The story peppers in elements of romance and heartbreak, but the real love story is between a growing woman and the place she calls home.
The Daughter of Doctor Moreau is an innovative retelling of H. G. Wells’ 1896 classic The Island of Doctor Moreau. It retains the core idea of a doctor creating human-animal hybrids to push the boundaries of science and medicine, but changes the setting from an unnamed island in the Pacific Ocean to the Yucatán peninsula during the 1870s Mexican Caste War. Additionally, its narrator is no longer a shipwrecked Brit. The Daughter of Doctor Moreau instead switches between the perspectives of Montgomery Laughton – Yaxaktun’s caretaker and a name borrowed from Wells’ novel – and Carlota, the titular daughter of Doctor Moreau. These changes allow Moreno-Garcia to convey an intimate familiarity with the setting of the story from the start, an intimacy that gives the novel much of its power. This is especially true when Carlota’s intimacy with and love for the hacienda is what forces her to stand up against all she has ever known to protect it, leading her on a journey of self-discovery and coming into power.
Both Montgomery and Carlota are sympathetic protagonists, though it is always obvious that Carlota is the star of the show. Moreno-Garcia presents Carlota as a sweet, dutiful girl who slowly realizes that her father’s experiments aren’t as ethical as they may seem. She slowly becomes more aware of the politics surrounding these experiments as she meets with patrons Eduardo and Isidro Lizalde and begins to question the Lizaldes’ intentions with the hybrids. This move towards a more critical attitude is gradual and filled with resistance as Carlota tries to hold on to the life she has always known, which includes obedience towards her father.
It is a great strength of this novel that it does not rush Carlota’s character development in any way. Her feelings and growth always feel grounded in the development of the story’s events. Her process towards breaking out of a mold created by the sheltered environment she grew up in runs the danger of feeling forced, but this is never the case in Moreno-Garcia’s novel. Carlota is shown more of the world (or rather, different ideas about the world, as she never leaves the hacienda) by Eduardo Lizalde as he courts her. He makes her more excited about the idea of a world beyond the hacienda where she might be allowed to be more expressive, and introduces her to the idea of questioning a parent’s authority.
However, I cannot claim that The Daughter of Doctor Moreau is a big hitter when it comes to plot. This is partially made up for by the characters, but none of them quite have the depth to fully replace this. While I was sympathetic towards the characters, I never cared deeply for them. Because the lack of plot puts the burden of engagement largely on the characters, I would consider this a flaw of the book. The Daughter of Doctor Moreau is beautiful, but it can be difficult to fully engage with it.
As mentioned, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau is not a book that heavily focuses on its plot. Things obviously still happen in the book, but they mostly function to push the characters’ development. Much more emphasis is laid on the characters and – possibly even more importantly – the setting.
Some reviewers (Boyd, BonesBooksBuffy) have complained about the main plot twist being too predictable. This is a fair complaint, but personally, it did not bother me too much as I saw this ‘twist’ as more of a culmination of a character arc. Additionally, at least one reviewer (BookshelfFantasies) was disappointed at the relatively small role the hybrids played in the story, as they thought they were “the most interesting part of the story”. I would disagree with the latter, though it is true that from the synopsis it seemed like the hybrids would play a much larger part in the story than they did. Nevertheless, I do not feel that this is necessarily a flaw of the book. The dehumanization of the hybrids and the lack of attention that is paid to them is one of the ways in which Moreno-Garcia alludes to the poor treatment of the oppressed people in Mexico. The European descendant ruling class treated the native Mayan population as inhuman (this was also the cause of the Caste War rebellion) and as nothing more than a source of labor, similarly to the hybrids in this book. Because of this, it makes some amount of sense that they occupy more of a background role.
Moreno-Garcia successfully transports us into the Mexican jungle, illustrating a lush and beautiful world that one can only be in awe of. The actual story takes a while to take off and even when it does – around the halfway mark – it remains very slow. This makes it more difficult to get immersed in the story, but the slow pace is not all bad. Moreno-Garcia is masterful at setting a creeping pace that always has you feeling like something is building ominously in the background. This adds another dimension to the rich setting and lyrical writing of the book, and it was definitely one of the things that kept me reading.
One of my main problems with Moreno-Garcia’s atmospheric writing style is something that is rather close to what I consider one of its main strengths. I previously mentioned that Moreno-Garcia’s writing constantly feels like it is building towards something. The problem with this is that it never fully follows through with this feeling. This building of tension inevitably falls flat without a satisfying climax. This is a feeling I got when reading Moreno-Garcia’s hit novel Mexican Gothic and once again with this book. There is a kind of ‘final battle’ at the climax of the book, but for me it did not resolve all of the subtle tensions to my satisfaction. The final chapter’s denouement softens this a little in the sense that its open ending and the bittersweet hope it leaves behind does more justice to the overall feeling of the book. Writing a satisfying ending to a novel predicated on atmosphere over action must be extremely difficult, and I could not imagine how Moreno-Garcia could do it better. Still, as a reader and not a writer, I was left wanting more.
Feminist and Anti-Colonial Themes
As several reviewers (Memmot, Serrano, Boyd) have noted, the amended setting has a striking effect on the political messages of the book. Moreno-Garcia sets her novel in the 1870s Yucatán peninsula during its Caste War, in which the Maya population was rising up against the European (and European-descended) ruling class. The story criticizes how the European-descended ruling class treats the land and its people with a combination of ownership and disdain, and questions the legitimacy of this rule. The book shows how the Lizaldes, the embodiment of this ruling class, are ill-suited for life in the jungles of Yucatán, and have no real reason to be allowed to have any kind of authority there. They are shown sweating in their city clothes and getting lost at every turn. This is juxtaposed to the Mayan rebels who know the territory like the back of their hand and the inhabitants of Yaxaktun who flourish in their environment. This criticism of the ruling-class and their unfounded legitimacy, while siding (either tentatively or strongly, depending on the character focalizing) with the Mayan rebels in the Caste War, show the book’s anti-colonial themes. She shows Ramona, the maid, cautiouslygiving supplies to the Mayan rebels and Cachito, a hybrid Carlota sees as her little brother, idolizes the leader of the rebels as a hero. While the narrative shows this idolization as a youthful simplification of the political dynamics at play, it does not contradict that the rebel leader Cumux is whose side we are on. Similarly, the giving of supplies to the rebels is ultimately seen as a just act.
The feminist themes in this book are even more overt. Carlota grows up and claims power for herself alongside a realization of the stifling expectations that are put upon women. This is present in her changing relationship with her father, but perhaps more obvious in altercations with the Lizaldes. One of the turning points in the story is when Eduardo Lizalde tells Carlota that she would be allowed to live with him in Mérida and have a comfortable life there as his mistress, indicating that this is the most favorable outcome for her. This is when Carlota realizes how few options she really has within Mexican society as a woman of her position. It is also when she truly makes the choice to break away from this ‘civil’ society. Her options are either to conform to the idea society has of her and live a safe life as Eduardo’s docile mistress away from Yaxaktun, or she can shun that very society and choose the much more dangerous option to reject Eduardo and fight (with the hybrids and the rebels) to become the mistress of Yaxaktun. She chooses the latter.
These themes might not be called subtle – they are naturally crafted with a strong sense of modern morals and ‘21st century sensibilities’ (Abel) – but when reading they never seem exaggerated. There is a fine balance to keep here that many historical fiction books skew by having their heroines speak and act according to modern day feminist beliefs – I fear I have to sympathize with Booker Prize winner Hillary Mantel’s sentiment that we shouldn’t “falsely empower female characters in history” as it tends to feel fake – but Moreno-Garcia does a good job at keeping this balance. As said before, all of Carlota’s character development seems realistically in line with the developments of the story, and her growing ‘feminist’ beliefs and actions follow the same trend.
Balancing Love and Criticism
What struck me most about The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, and indeed the thing that has stayed with me now months after I read the book, is how Moreno-Garcia balances this criticism of historical Mexico with an obvious overwhelming love for the country and the setting she describes. The lush descriptions of the nature, the cultural artifacts, the food, and the rituals surrounding this are so carefully cultivated to exude a feeling of love that is hard to ignore. Personally, I am not the most visual reader, but Moreno-Garcia truly managed to make me feel like I could see, feel, and experience all the things she was describing.
This vividness and the strength of this love for Mexico is obviously focalized through the narrator. Carlota’s love for Yaxaktun is the primary romance of this story. Though Carlota has to contend with (different kinds of) love for Eduardo and Montgomery and her father, her strongest attachment is for her home. Something that makes this story great is its capacity to express such a strong love while still being critical of its object. Carlota’s adoration of her surroundings does not take away from her realization of the injustices that transpire there – both because of the Lizaldes’ rule and her father’s unethical treatment of the hybrids. If anything, it strengthens it. Carlota’s connection to Yaxaktun is what creates the stakes in the novel, what drives Carlota to fight against the institutional sexism and class inequalities mentioned before. These tensions are what make the story feel alive. The intricate balance of Moreno-Garcia’s love for (historical) Mexico and her criticism of its misogyny and colonialism helps set the bittersweet tone that is proving to be the trademark of her writing and, in my opinion, its greatest strength.
Anna Mangnus is studying in the MA Literature Today after completing their BS in Liberal Arts and Sciences at Tilburg University. They are interested in queer voices and unconventional storytelling. So far, their main experience with criticism has been loudly commenting on whatever trashy movies and tv shows they watch on the couch with their best friends, and rambling to whoever will hear it about the weird stories they love. This is their first publication.
- Abel, Colleen. “Review: ‘The Daughter of Doctor Moreau’ by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.” Star Tribune, 15 Jul. 2022, http://www.startribune.com/review-the-daughter-of-doctor-moreau-by-silvia-moreno-garcia/600190436/?refresh=tru.
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- “Book Review: The Daughter of Doctor Moreau by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.” Bookshelf Fantasies, 6 Aug. 2022, bookshelffantasies.com/2022/08/06/book-review-the-daughter-of-doctor-moreau-by-silvia-moreno-garcia/.
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- Memmott, Carol. “Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s New Novel Puts a Feminist Twist on ‘Dr. Moreau’.” The Washington Post, 28 Jul. 2022, http://www.washingtonpost.com/books/2022/07/28/silvia-moreno-garcia-moreau/.
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- “The Daughter of Doctor Moreau by Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Review.” Books, Bones & Buffy, 28 Jul. 2022, booksbonesbuffy.com/2022/07/28/the-daughter-of-doctor-moreau-by-silvia-moreno-garcia-review/.
- Urioste, José. “The Caste War of Yucatan.” The Yucatan Times, 2 Aug. 2019, http://www.theyucatantimes.com/2019/08/the-caste-war-of-yucatan/.