J.A. Barker uses the plot of All That Really Mattered to serve up the big questions of life, love and humanity, all revolving around the nature and nuances of identity.
Andrew Hamilton, a paralyzed, aging neuroscientist, is planning suicide by agreeing to a brain transplant he hopes will kill him. Instead, the transplant of his brain into Tony Costello, a recently deceased young man, is successful. Hamilton awakens to a youthful physique and handsome face, but his own brain is intact, with all his past experiences, education and beliefs.
Shocked by his transformation, his wife Margaret leaves him, and his medical colleagues can’t accept him. Add to these changes the fact that hotheaded Costello’s personality intermittently interferes and the question becomes: who is Andrew Hamilton now?
Still mourning his wife, Hamilton becomes romantically entangled with Tony’s widow and her son, who is angry that Hamilton is “using” his father’s body. Following the demise of that relationship, the protagonist moves in an effort to escape his past and encounters Sarah, a sexy, zany friend-with-benefits. Sarah’s sudden appearance in Hamilton’s life is a bit contrived, but their lively debates allow Barker to dig into vital philosophical questions.
Some of the dialogue drags, and the author can get a little heavy-handed with her characters’ philosophical discussions, but Hamilton’s back and forth about love and life with Sarah and other characters lifts the book above melodrama. Throughout, Barker adroitly cuts back and forth between her characters, from past to present. As the story unwinds, another brain transplant occurs involving Hamilton’s former wife—and even more complications ensue.
With two brain transplants, the novel edges toward the fantastical, but with her solid science background, Barker creates a very real and compelling world. The plot moves quickly and the characters are well-drawn, making this first novel an enjoyable read that foretells more promising work to come from this author.
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