A series of contrasts of impulses and moral dilemmas wind through a penetrating novel that melds the world of celebrity with that of science, of narcissism with research and curiosity and of moral degeneration with the inept mistakes of the socially awkward. The novel opens with London’s larger-than-life Ritchie Shepherd, a popular game show host and former British rock star reluctant to admit the years have stolen his youthful glory, years he shared the magic of the stage with his wife, Karin. Ritchie has frolicked in a sea of celebrity, oblivious to the fading of his star, a living shrine to himself. His recent peccadillo with an underage girl on his show—albeit a worldly young thing—is the weed that thrives in the garden of domesticity, eventually poisoning all Ritchie has meticulously cultivated.
Ritchie’s sister, Bec, a scientist searching for a cure for malaria in Africa, impulsively breaks up with her fiancé, Val Oatman, owner of a small but powerful London newspaper and considered the “moral arbiter of the nation.” Bec’s refusal wounds Oatman, an unforgiving soul. Ritchie’s dalliance and Bec’s refusal have begun a confluence of events, the unforeseeable evolution of two distinct actions providing the grist for Meek’s tale. It is both fascinating and artistically complex, from the obvious self-indulgence of a former rock icon to the silent corridors of cutting-edge medical research, where disease is attacked by a battalion of brilliant scientists, prey to human mistakes as anyone else in the tangled relationships of modern life.
Alex Comrie and his uncle Harry, both reputable scientists, are woven into a narrative begun with the obstreperous Ritchie and the studious Bec. The fact that Alex was once a member of Ritchie’s band, while intriguing, takes on a more ominous tone by association, another random seed cast into Ritchie’s garden that will bear the fruit of unintended consequences. It is only natural that Bec and Alex might be drawn together once Bec is freed from obligation to Oatman. Unfortunately, Ritchie’s sister becomes the unexpected catalyst for a simmering resentment, revenge so elegantly enacted that the damage is done without anyone suspecting its careful orchestration, the cracks in a vital foundation obscured, though irreparable.
Such is the intellectual sophistication of Meek’s tale, shifting between celebrity and science, the greedy artifice of a small-screen demagogue and the purity of a researcher’s devotion to her quest. Bec’s relationship naiveté fuels the insidious growth of a destructive plot to which she is oblivious. Brother and sister Ritchie and Bec are the characters who support the whole, Bec’s innocence irrelevant when Ritchie is involved, a man who leaves damage in his wake through force of habit.
Meek salts the pages with an assortment of personalities, from those who are attracted to Ritchie’s extravagant, spoiled existence to the more serious individuals who thrive in academia. With the malevolent intent of Harry Comrie’s bitter, devoutly religious son and a man with the power of print to foment an extraordinary claim further complicating an emotional contretemps, Meek has written a tour de force that is both intellectual and fearless in exposing the banality of personal conceit.