Mordechai de Paauw is both the narrator and the larger-than-life main character of Saskia Goldschmidt's first novel. A power-hungry businessman, Mordechai pushes boundaries in his personal and professional quests for domination. His voice is consistent with that of an egomaniac willing to sacrifice all in the race for developing medical hormones. His narrative is equally consistent with the unscrupulous way he treats women, his employees, and loved ones. Readers won't find poetic passages remarking on the wonders of love in this work that reads like a diary. Yet Goldschmidt achieves a formidable task: making readers hungry for more of Mordechai.
Not content to be part of a family success story in the meat processing industry, Mordechai (the savvy twin saddled with brother Aaron--"slowness incarnate") enlists esteemed German research doctor RafaŽl Levine to drive startup Farmacom. This research lab/future pharmaceutical company has unlimited access to the once-wasted byproducts of slaughtered animals. Levine eyes patenting insulin, then female and male hormones. Mordechai quickly becomes so eager to test Farmacom's creations
that he bypasses the cautious test phase that Dr. Levine insists on, endangering the lives of workers and even family members. He fails to provide innocent victims with the limited information and warnings that would help them comprehend the risks in taking experimental medicines.
While a novel primarily about the life of one aggressively ambitious man, The Hormone Factory also provides a view of Holland's pre-Hitler days and the adjustments that follow. The de Paauw family is Jewish, as are most of Farmacom's research scientists. Collectively they exhibit the full range of reactions to the advancing threat. Mordechai and Levine, in conﬂict after peace is declared, illustrate two distinct ways inﬂuential people survived the war, who or what they protected, and the high price of the ensuing personal and professional reckonings once the Nazis are defeated.
At the same time, the author also paints an all-too vivid portrait of capitalism's frequent attacks on individual and societal mores. Aaron is the ﬂawed foil to his selfish sibling. Levine is the educated humanist, his wife a cultural icon. The author tosses in a less-than perfect priest to additionally challenge both Mordechai's creations and his actions. The reappearing father also emphasizes the then pivotal role of the Catholic Church regarding sexual promiscuity and birth control.
Today Mizie has called in a doctor to back up her dearly held conviction that keeping me alive is still the right thing to do. The young man, who calls himself a geriatrician, is the 'expert' when it comes to life-and-death decisions. Getting saddled with this jerk must be my comeuppance for all the medical concoctions I unleashed on the world in my lifetime. All those miracle drugs that were fought tooth and nail by the Catholic Church because we had renounced the humility expected of man and taken on ourselves the mantle of creator.
With his irascible tone, Mordechai tends to underplay the damage his overactive libido has wrought. It is clearly ironic that the pharmaceuticals he is most interested in developing at Farmacom's state-of-the art labs are the hormones that increase and allow such behavior.
It is also a feat of irony that the coming downfall for Mordechai's son, an accusation of rape, finally breaks through Mordechai's compartmentalized conscience. The ambiguous details of both Mordechai's American one-nighter, his son's sexual victims, and Mordechai's illegitimate daughter add a thought-provoking element: is the world really that small of a place? Should these men be thinking of whose daughters these women might be before they lunge?
The afterword of The Hormone Factory is a must-read. While a novel, many of the basic facts of this book were uncovered while the author researched her family's history during WWII. Revealing her connection to this early pharmacological world and Hitler's death camps, she shares a profound quote about the human condition, uttered by her father's first wife: "Marriage isn't made to withstand hell." Rivka, Mordechai's first wife, would agree.