JANE HAS TWO obsessions: her cousin and long-lost best friend Martha, and 19th-century naturalist Charles Darwin. As the maudlin hero of Cathleen Schine's novel The Evolution of Jane, she pursues both to the point of exhaustion. After her marriage goes South, Jane traipses off on an eco-tour of Darwin's beloved Galapagos Islands, and finds herself face-to-face with her nemesis, the placid, tan eco-guide Martha. See Jane pine over the loss of her childhood friend and pontificate on the intricate mechanics of evolution. See Jane unravel her family's secrets. See Jane mess herself after a nasty bout of seasickness.
Though suffering from nausea both literal and existential, Jane adapts fairly well to her adopted family, a group of yuppie New England eco-tourists who tote Naglene water bottles and wear ethnic jewelry made from dried pigeon stool. Aboard the group's boat, the Thomas H. Huxley, she even begins to scout the dominant males for mating possibilities. At the same time, however, she's consumed by her lingering resentment of Martha. As the eco-group bounces through a whirlwind tour of Darwin's scientific stomping ground, fondling the wildlife and cooing at piles of guano, Jane retreats into a Zen trance of self-pity, reconstructing her childhood and the ugly, petty family feud that led to Martha's betrayal. "Still one was not a Buddha," she muses. "One was a human being, flesh and blood and nerve endings and chemical messages to one's brain. And those messages said, Fuck you, Martha."
Despite the depth of her introspection, Jane finds no catharsis. There is only Martha, precocious little Jane, and the requisite cast of quirky New England eccentrics, including senile, chain-smoking Aunt Anna, a mother who responds to everything with the word "chaos," and a Cuban maid who speaks no English but swears like one of Darwin's swarthy shipmates.
If the story of family squabbling and personal evolution is queasily common these days, Schine rescues Evolution of Jane from the primordial ooze of memoir with her incisive wit. Indeed, it's impossible not to be droll while writing about eco-tourists, a group that almost demands ridicule. Schine takes full advantage, exposing the flagrant silliness of characters like Gloria Steinem, a walking, whining testament to the insidious power of National Geographic.
Schine displays her most agile wit in her portrait of Jane, who is simultaneously an irritating and endearingly hapless creature. If it weren't for the protection of her credit cards and multi-pocketed khaki shorts, she would be a prime candidate for the metaphysical slap of natural selection. As with the Galapagos tortoise, though, it's impossible not to sympathize with something so silly and so slow. Characteristically, the sum of her personal evolution is: "Martha is the sun... and I'm the male nipple." Like the vestigial mammary, Jane's circuitous rambling produces nothing and serves no purpose. Fortunately, it's also a source of great amusement.