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Mendel's Dwarf Paperback – July 1, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

Dr. Benedict Lambert, the hero of Mendel's Dwarf, is very much a leg man, not that he has much choice in the matter. For the celebrated geneticist is a dwarf, a man resigned to being stared at for a little too long from some way up, and inured to bromides about inner beauty and outward bravery. As far as he's concerned, bravery requires choice--something he never had, since his father's sperm lacked "the command for height, for normality, for happiness and contentment." The beautiful swimmer did, however, pass on the genes for irony, sharp observation, and love, all of which Ben has in abundance in Simon Mawer's superb novel of academic twists and emotional turns.

A distant relative of the first geneticist, pea-pollinating Gregor Mendel, Ben has long used libraries as a refuge, and education as a way out (if not up). Still in his 20s, he's determined to identify the gene that made him "one of nature's practical jokes." Offered a post at the Royal Institute for Genetics, he immediately puts achondroplasia on the table. The director may well consider research into dwarfdom commercially unviable, but Ben knows better. His height will finally be of help: "There are lots of organizations interested," he insists. "The Little People of America, groups like that. When they see me coming they reach for their covenant forms."

Mawer interleaves Ben's research with the story of his affair (a "menage à une et demi") with the Institute's ill-fated assistant librarian, Jeane Piercey: "Mousy, of course. I feel that all librarians ought to be mousy. It should be a necessary (but not sufficient) qualification for the job. Mousy? Agouti? What, I wonder, is its genetic control? Perhaps it is tightly linked to the gene for tidiness." Mawer also juxtaposes Ben's passion with that of his legume-obsessed ancestor. Mendel, it turns out, pined for Frau Rotway, a married woman in the inevitable company of her own achondroplastic, a dachshund.

Mendel's Dwarf wears its considerable learning lightly--the author is a biologist--and readers will be alternately moved, charmed, and shocked by Ben's "astringent kiss of irony." Because the hero makes several difficult choices in the course of this fine novel, we admire his bravery, along with his resilience, at every turn. For Ben, the smallest gesture can become the largest (nods being "big absurd things, my head being about the same size as my body. You can't miss them. They are the gestural equivalent of screaming"). And alas, such acts are often poignantly beyond Ben's grasp: "I wanted to put my arm around her, of course, to bring her that fragile thing that we call comfort. But of course I couldn't reach." --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Benedict Lambert, the protagonist of this imaginative and intelligent novel, is the great-great-great nephew of Gregor Mendel and a famous geneticist in his own right. He is also the dwarf of the title, obsessed with finding the marker for his condition and haunted by the all-too-easy assumptions/prejudices achondroplastics face when dealing with society at large. That a stunted body does not mean a stunted mind, feelings, or libido is brought clearly into focus through Lambert's relationship with a "mousy" librarian named Jean. Mawer weaves a story that is in turns compassionate, erotic, and angry. In telling Benedict's story, Mawer also tells that of Mendel, a genius who died unappreciated but who ultimately had a more important impact on the world than even Darwin. His discoveries provide the base for modern genetic research and the possibility of identifying markers for disease (and possibly cures), but they also raise the possibility of our being able to select particular physical characteristics for our offspring. The ethical and moral implications are obvious, particularly when brought into focus through someone whose own strain is likely to have no place in this brave new world. A wonderfully crafted, thought-provoking tale in which the science never gets in the way of the story; highly recommended.?David W. Henderson, Eckerd Coll. Lib., St. Petersberg, Fla.
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (July 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 014028155X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140281552
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.6 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (57 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #611,018 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Simon Mawer was born in 1948 in England, and spent his childhood there, in Cyprus and in Malta. Educated at Millfield School in Somerset and at Brasenose College, Oxford, he took a degree in biology and worked as a biology teacher for many years. His first novel, Chimera, was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1989, winning the McKitterick Prize for first novels. Mendel's Dwarf (1997), his first book to be publish in the US, reached the last ten of the Booker Prize and was a New York Time "Book to Remember" for 1998. The Gospel of Judas, The Fall (winner of the 2003 Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature) and Swimming to Ithaca followed. In 2009 The Glass Room, his tenth book and eighth novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Since then he has published Trapeze (The Girl Who Fell From The Sky in Britain) and readers can expect a sequel, entitled Tightrope, early in 2015.

Mawer is married and has two children. He has lived in Italy for the past thirty years.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

28 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Gail Cooke HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 25, 2000
Format: Paperback
Although the incongruity of the pairing startles, Mendel's Dwarf is an achingly beautiful love story.. It is also an account of scientific progress, of the strides made in the field of genetic research. And, it is poignant reminder of the paucity of our understanding regarding the human heart.
Dr. Benedict Lambert, Ben, a distinguished geneticist, is the great-great-great-nephew of Gregor Mendel, the Augustinian friar whose research in the inheritance characters in plants and hybridization provided the platform for modern genetics. Ironically, Ben has achondroplasia - he is a dwarf, a mutant as he calls himself, who "possesses a massive forehead and blunt, puglike features. His nose is stove in at the bridge, his mouth and jaw protrude. His limbs are squat and bowed, his fingers are mere squabs. He is one meter, twenty-seven centimeters tall."
Yet he is brilliant, so esteemed that he is called upon to address members of the Mendel Symposium some 100 years after his great-great-great uncle's death. Aware of the surprise, revulsion and pity in the eyes of his audience, he has steeled himself to ignore the "there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I sort of stare," yet he is cagey enough to use their sympathy, "the guilt of the survivor," to win over his listeners.
Following his address Ben visits the monastery at Brno where Mendel worked. It is here that their life stories begin to interweave. Through Ben's voice we learn that they share a devotion to research, while each is hampered in his own way - the eccentric friar by his humble background and the parameters imposed by the Augustinian order he follows, while Ben is fettered by his physical deformity.
As men they are both frustrated sexually.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Larry L. Looney on November 11, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I found Simon Mawer's novel of a modern geneticist afflicted with achondroplasia -- dwarfism -- to be a well-written, compelling read. The book is filled with information on the theories of genetics that were pioneered by Georg Mendel 150 years ago -- a man whose genius was unrecognized in his own day. The scientific content is very relevant to the story told, and, to Mawer's credit, does not present an obstacle to the enjoyment of this novel -- on the contrary, it allows the reader a glimpse deep into the character of Ben Lambert, a man with an understandably intent mission: the isolation and identification of the gene responsible for his own mutation.
Lambert is an intelligent, acerbic, somewhat bitter character -- he has learned through his life to endure the polite and not-so-polite stares, the prejudices, the patronizing smiles of so-called 'normal' people. He has even learned to use his all-too-obvious condition in his studies and lectures -- making self-effacing jokes to lull his audience into a sense of relaxed cameraderie and submission, only to turn around and make a stabbing point with the determination and aim of Captain Ahab going after Moby Dick.
There is a love story here as well, in Lambert's relationship with Jean Piercey Miller. It is told very movingly -- it allows us to see fondness and emotion flourish in the heart of one who has been hardened by the treatment he has received at the hands of the world. There is also a purely erotic side, darker. It is tinged with a definite sadness, for we can see other, less healthy emotional undercurrents in both characters as well -- there is joy and sorrow in the cup from which they drink.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By nancy lapidus on March 24, 2002
Format: Paperback
You don't have to know genetics to understand Mendel's Dwarf, but it helps. The reader may think the title refers to Mendel's dwarf pea plants, but in fact the narrative is in the voice of Dr. Benedict Lambert, a genetics biochemist, an achondroplastic dwarf and great-grandnephew of Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics.
The novel's theme shifts between the current love story of Benedict and a librarian, Jean (get it?), and Mendel's activities and researches with peas and corn. Interesting and difficult questions are raised by way of this story:
1) Why was Mendel's research largely ignored in its time although it was the obvious solution to questions raised by Darwin about evolution? (It had the scintillating title, "Research in Pea Plants," and the Darwin-Huxley-Fisher group were more interested in descriptive natural history and the British Empire than in Pascal's triangle and probability quotients.)
2) How was eugenics used as a rationale for the British Empire and by Hitler for the Holocaust, and are we still doing it?
3) Is it even possible to avoid unnatural selection in our time? (Isn't the practice of birth control a form of eugenics?)
There are footnotes and references throughout, but be careful. I checked a reference to a journal, Trends in Genetics, May 1995 via PubMed, but although I found the journal, could not locate the article he cites.
There is suspense throughout, even to Benedict's final dilemma. The book might have been called Benedict's Choice, but the author was too imaginative for that.
Aside from enjoyment, this book might be an excellent selection for a course called Science in Literature. Teenagers, especially, would identify with Benedict's loneliness and would be interested in the social and ethical dilemmas raised by our knowledge of modern genetics.
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