The Origin Of Species by Nino RicciThe Origin Of Species by Nino Ricci

The Origin Of Species

byNino Ricci

Paperback | March 30, 2009

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The crater held a circle of stars above them as if they were closed up in a snow globe, a private cosmos. He thought of Darwin sleeping out on the pampas during his Beagle trip, a middle-class white kid traveling the world, the first of the backpackers. It was only afterwards, really, that he had made any sense of what he had seen. Alex wondered what, in the fullness of time, he himself would make sense of, what small, crucial detail might be lodging itself in his brain that would shake his life to its foundations. (p 286)


Montreal during the turbulent mid-1980’s: Chernobyl has set geiger counters thrumming across the globe, HIV/AIDS is cutting a deadly swath through the gay population worldwide, and locally, tempers are flaring over the language laws of Bill 101. Hiding out in a seedy apartment near the Concordia campus is Alex Fratarcangeli (“Don’t worry… I can’t even pronounce it myself”), a somewhat oafish 30-something grad student. Though tender and generous at heart, Alex leads a life devoid of healthy relationships, ashamed in particular of the damage he has done to the women with whom he has been romantically entangled. Plagued by the sensation that his entire life is a fraud, Alex attends daily sessions with a lackluster psychoanalyst in an attempt to shake off the demon of depression (and the cigarette-tinged voice of Peter Gzowski in his ear). Scarred by a distant father and a dangerous relationship with his ex Liz, and consumed by a floundering dissertation linking Darwin’s theory of evolution with the history of human narrative, Alex has come to view love and other human emotions as “evolutionary surplus, haphazard neural responses that nature had latched onto for its own insidious purposes.”

Then a convergence of brave souls enter Alex’s life, forcing him to recognize the possibility of meaningful connections. There is his neighbour Esther, whose multiple sclerosis is progressing rapidly, yet who gamely attacks every day she has left. There is the elegant Félix, an older gay man whose own health status is in question yet who remains resolutely generous,and María, returning to fight for human rights in her native El Salvador, knowing she will face certain peril. Along the way Alex meets others whose struggles with their own demons are not so successful, and sometimes tragic. When he receives a letter from Ingrid, the beautiful woman he knew years ago in Sweden, notifying him of the existence of his five year old son. Alex is gripped by a paralytic terror.

Whenever Alex’s thoughts grow darkest, he is compelled to recall Desmond, the British professor with dubious credentials whom he met years ago in the Galapagos. Treacherous and despicable, wearing his ignominy like his rumpled jacket, Desmond nonetheless caught Alex in his thrall and led him to some life-altering truths during their weeks exploring Darwin’s islands together. It is only now that Alex can begin to comprehend these unlikely life lessons, and see a glimmer of hope shining through what he had thought was meaninglessness.

Funny, poignant and visceral, Nino Ricci’s most recent masterpiece The Origin of Species will remind you of the wonder of life, the beauty of existence and the great gift that is our connection to the universe and all that is.
Nino Ricci was born in Leamington, Ontario, to parents from the Molise region of Italy. He studied English literature and creative writing at York University and Concordia University, then Italian studies at the University of Florence. He has taught literary studies and creative writing in Canada and abroad. He now lives in Toronto, an...
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Title:The Origin Of SpeciesFormat:PaperbackDimensions:496 pages, 9.25 × 6.31 × 1.08 inPublished:March 30, 2009Publisher:Doubleday CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0385663617

ISBN - 13:9780385663618

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Customer Reviews of The Origin Of Species

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Rated 3 out of 5 by from Inconsistent... I found this one hard to read. There were parts that were compelling and interesting to read, and there were parts that I just thought were so boring.
Date published: 2017-02-01
Rated 1 out of 5 by from The Origin of Species by Nino Ricci I found this book very wordy and a bit tedious to read. The author went on at length during many parts of the story about the character's dissertation on a very confusing scientific theory that I didn't really care about. The characters in the book, themselves, were depressing and without any uplifting or interesting characteristics. I found the book didn't really go anywhere and the storyline a bit stagnant. I purchased the book as I was very interested in the Galapagos Islands, having just visited there. But the characters actions in that part of the book were very distasteful and more maddening than anything else. The description of the islands were spot-on though.
Date published: 2015-08-28
Rated 1 out of 5 by from I was filled with hate but driven by curiousity to finish this book. Does the strength of these compulsions mean that Nino Ricci is a skilled writer? Perhaps. I wanted to know why Alex got under my skin so effectively. Primarily, as the story unfolded I wholeheartedly disagreed with the choices he made, unconvinced a real person would do the same -- namely myself -- in his circumstances. I do acknowledge perhaps Alex's choices triggered the fear in me that my own partner possesses a similar disposition and therefore likely to commit the same grievances against me given the opportunity. Then I realized, what if Alex was too real? That facing the opportunity to make a difficult choice, to adapt and challenge stark probabilities with rare strength of character, to essentially EVOLVE, most people would rather slink back into the comfort of the mundane, silently moving toward extinction. this is what Alex represents to me. Choosing to be unremarkable is a choice and it angered me to observe how he fooled himself into thinking that inaction meant no accountability. Outside of the character profile, what else really gnawed at me throughout the book was the references to the "current events." References to El Salvadorian revolution, to separatist undercurrents of the early 80s in Montreal, to science fraud, Libya, Chernobyl, HIV / homosexual stigmas, Reagan politics, and on and on and on. I wonder how many of these references are relevant ? More than anything it made me feel excluded, perhaps as a consequence of my age, I don't have a reference to these issues in my life. Part of me felt like I was witnessing the unabashed antics of my younger sister trying to be the center of attention... so hard the effort feels to qualify as a "great Canadian novel." Well we have to put all those historical references, the french words, and the geography of Montreal, the ongoing conversation with CBC host Peter Gzowski, the awkward way Canadian culture might meet and clash in the patchwork of bigger cities.... I know when I went through the book a second time all of these things gave alot of context. For imagining the setting, the emotions, the type of motivations that drive characters to be on one side or the other of an issue. The dynamic between characters was real and gritty. Some events were mundane but also deliberate and uncomfortable. Perhaps all I can say is this book was too real for me to enjoy.
Date published: 2012-10-04
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Was expecting more It won the GG's??? And that is basically how the entire book feels like. It does start out with a very gripping circumstance, but then it kind of falls flat.
Date published: 2010-02-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from great Canadian novel! This book was chosen for my book club and a few members seemed daunted by the length. It read fast for me however, as there were no slow middle parts, even the Galapagos section. The characters are so well described, none are flat. I thought the Peter Gzowski reference was cool too.
Date published: 2009-11-09
Rated 3 out of 5 by from alex and evolution Book Review by Ethel Clark The Origin of Species by Nino Ricco Published in Canada, Sept. 30, 2008 by Doubleday ISBN 10:0385663609 The author focuses on two main topics: Alex,an anxiety-ridden and depressed Canadian Literature student in 1980’s Montreal and Charles Darwin’s theory on evolution and the meaning of life. Alex is not forceful, or that interesting. Lots of events happen, not plot-driven. The many facts and quotes from authors inspired me to research Darwin and Malthus, quite an educational enlightenment. It took me a while to get through it, going back to reread passages. The story begins and ends with Esther, giving it a smooth conclusion. Excitement didn’t begin until the middle of the book in the Galapagos Islands with Desmond and Santos in search of the special plants connected with Darwin. These characters were raw and attention-getting, making for a good plot. The author touched on too many subjects, characters and cities, making it difficult to concentrate on one. I enjoyed the scientific aspects and the geographic areas of the book more than the story itself.
Date published: 2009-09-07
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Boy, was that a disappointment. I have previously Mr. Ricci's books and I was so looking forward to a good summer read. I hardly ever stop reading a book once I am past the "100 page rule", so this is an exception to the rule. At times, I thought the interactions between the characters was heating up and then I could hardly remember what I had just read. I'm confused how this book won the Governor General's award and how Heather made one of her picks.
Date published: 2009-07-17
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Dating as Evolutionary Biology I was set to like this book, in fact I expected to really like this book. I thought I had good reasons to love it. Previously I had read "Lives of the Saints" Mr. Ricci's debut novel and loved it. The cover picture of 'Origins' still speaks to me, the colours(the clouds at the top of the cover should be more blue), the image of the blue footed booby grabbed me the instant I saw it, even the fake coffee rings on the front and back covers. The clincher was knowing that Alex, the main character, would travel to the Galapagos islands, to me a mysterious and enchanting location. Whats not to love? Unfortunately it didn't come together for me. I followed Alex Fratarcangeli as he worked to complete the requirements for his PhD in Interdisciplinary studies (linking literary theory with evolutionary biology) at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec. It is the day after the disaster at Chernobyl and Alex meets his neighbour Ester. She is also a student at Concordia as well as living with Multiple Sclerosis. There is an attraction between these two right from the start. Its not sexual, possibly maternal, Alex doesn't give a thought but immediately comes to her rescue that first day. I was talking with my sister about this book. She hasn't read it, but has read several others by Mr. Ricci. We were talking about the 'evolutionary aspects of this literary work' kind of like the thesis that Alex is writing. From an evolutionary aspect, a species seeks to reproduce so that their genes continue. Perhaps its in his subconscious, but that's what Alex is seeking to do. Felix offers him the possibility of a relationship, but Alex chooses not to follow-up on that. No chance of reproducing. Alex is involved with a number of females in the story. First there is Liz, they do manage to reproduce, but there is no live offspring, so Liz is out as a mate. Then he does get together with Amanda, but turns out to be not suitable as a long term mate. He meets Ester and she gets along well with Alex, and there is a mutual attraction. Unfortunately she has a terminal illness, so offspring are not likely. He also has an infatuation with Maria, but she doesn't reciprocate and then leaves. Alex is back to Ingrid. They have a history that Alex seems to keep trying to avoid/ignore. She is biologically the best mate since they have already successfully reproduced, hence their son Per. It became obvious to me that evolutionary biology was trying to tell Alex to get his act together and go back to Ingrid and take care of his offspring. My sister is looking forward to getting my book so she can figure out for herself whats going on in this book.
Date published: 2009-04-21
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Fascinating (if somewhat dysfunctional and exasperating) protagonist This GG-award winning story was an engaging read. The protagonist, Alex, is an Anglophone Italian-Canadian who is an English Major studying at McGill University in Montréal . He's pathetically out of touch with his inner life due to emotional and psychic fallout from a series of ill-informed choices, yet he manages to make meaningful connections with a few key individuals in spite of himself. All of the characters were entirely believable, and the story unfolds in a non-linear fashion that feels like real life. Not all of the details are sewn up neatly, but it all made sense by the time the book reached its conclusion. I found some of the academia a bit tedious and densely worded, but that is more of a statement about my own lack of exposure to such things than of the writing itself. Even so, I felt that I owed it to the character (and to the author) to pay attention and not to skim those portions - and I learned a few things in the process. At the story's conclusion, I found myself with a bit of longing and a sense of melancholy. As it turned out, I ended up sincerely caring for how Alex's life - and the lives of the peripheral characters - would unfold after I closed the book for the last time.
Date published: 2009-01-11
Rated 1 out of 5 by from It has its moments... but they are definitely scarce When 'The Origin of Species' didn't make the Giller shortlist, I immediately disregarded it. But then it won the G.G., so I thought I'd give it a chance. I regret the chance I gave it. I won't delve into plot, since, there isn't much of one in this novel despite its hefty 450-odd pages. The protagonist, Alex, shows great promise in the begining, but Ricci utterly screws up the character. He delves into overly excessive detail of Alex's thought processes over the most minute of decisions, which generally involve Alex always making the wrong choice (even though he is clearly of the repercussions). Definitely overwritten, Ricci makes frequent (and generally unnecessary) references to the political issues of Montreal circa-1980. Having been born in '88, I was not familiar with many of the issues talked about in the book. And if you're not Canadian, forgot about it, you won't understand a quarter of the novel. Ricci has effectively limited his audience to a small subset of the Canadian population, really smart move. Even they will find much to complain about. Alex travels to the Galapagos islands and Sweden, and the Galapagos is portrayed fairly well, but the long flashback that uses it as a setting is dreadfully boring. Sweden didn't come as evocative, but the Sweden sequences were at least mildly entertaining. Another issue is Alex's sex life. He has sex with so many females which are exchangeable personality wise it gets confusing to remember who is who. The only distinct female character is Esther, a woman with multiple sclerosis. According to the flap, she is supposedly a prominent character. In reality, she is absent from 85% of the book. Ricci, did anyone bother to notify you of one particular literary device that is strikingly absent from your novel? Plot. Yes, this story not only defies traditional plot structure, it eschews any semblance of a plot entirely. The entire novel lacks any sense of tension, it seems Ricci is reaching for something bigger here, but he ends up coming empty handed. Sorry Nino Ricci, I have never read any of your previous works and will now never read any of your future works. I could feel your attempt at creating an emotionally charged ending, but honestly, I didn't feel anything and was just glad the book was over so I could start reading some else. Boyden's Through Black Spruce was, while flawed in its own right, far superior to this. In the middle there are, admittedly, some interesting bits (when Ricci explores Alex's relationship with his former girlfriend, Liz. But, as with every other plot thread in this book, it essentially goes nowhere). For anyone considering purchasing this, I don't recommend you do. The brief moments of good prose cannot counteract this overwritten, plot-less, and generally boring novel. Note: (I did give one star, but my actual assessment would probably be around 1.5. Trapped within this borefest were moments of quite good writing. Ricci definitely has the capability of writing well, that much is clear, but he didn't capitalize on his abilities in this novel unfortunately).
Date published: 2009-01-10
Rated 1 out of 5 by from It has its moments... but they are definitely scarce When 'The Origin of Species' didn't make the Giller shortlist, I immediately disregarded it. But then it won the G.G., so I thought I'd give it a chance. I regret the chance I gave it. I won't delve into plot, since, there isn't much of one in this novel despite its hefty 450-odd pages. The protagonist, Alex, shows great promise in the begining, but Ricci utterly screws up the character. He delves into overly excessive detail of Alex's thought processes over the most minute of decisions, which generally involve Alex always making the wrong choice (even though he is clearly of the repercussions). Definitely overwritten, Ricci makes frequent (and generally unnecessary) references to the political issues of Montreal circa-1980. Having been born in '88, I was not familiar with many of the issues talked about in the book. And if you're not Canadian, forgot about it, you won't understand a quarter of the novel. Ricci has effectively limited his audience to a small subset of the Canadian population, really smart move. Even they will find much to complain about. Alex travels to the Galapagos islands and Sweden, and the Galapagos is portrayed fairly well, but the long flashback that uses it as a setting is dreadfully boring. Sweden didn't come as evocative, but the Sweden sequences were at least mildly entertaining. Another issue is Alex's sex life. He has sex with so many females which are exchangeable personality wise it gets confusing to remember who is who. The only distinct female character is Esther, a woman with multiple sclerosis. According to the flap, she is supposedly a prominent character. In reality, she is absent from 85% of the book. Ricci, did anyone bother to notify you of one particular literary device that is strikingly absent from your novel? Plot. Yes, this story not only defies traditional plot structure, it eschews any semblance of a plot entirely. The entire novel lacks any sense of tension, it seems Ricci is reaching for something bigger here, but he ends up coming empty handed. Sorry Nino Ricci, I have never read any of your previous works and will now never read any of your future works. I could feel your attempt at creating an emotionally charged ending, but honestly, I didn't feel anything and was just glad the book was over so I could start reading some else. Boyden's Through Black Spruce was, while flawed in its own right, far superior to this. In the middle there are, admittedly, some interesting bits (when Ricci explores Alex's relationship with his former girlfriend, Liz. But, as with every other plot thread in this book, it essentially goes nowhere). For anyone considering purchasing this, I don't recommend you do. The brief moments of good prose cannot counteract this overwritten, plot-less, and generally boring novel. Note: (I did give one star, but my actual assessment would probably be around 1.5. Trapped within this borefest were moments of quite good writing. Ricci definitely has the capability of writing well, that much is clear, but he didn't capitalize on his abilities in this novel unfortunately).
Date published: 2009-01-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from What Happens in Galapagos Stays in Galapagos Having just recently won the Governor General's award for Fiction for 2008, Nino Ricci's latest work "The Origin of Species" is a journey through the surreal. The plot and writing style remind me in a way of a Charlie Kaufman film in that there is a lot of self-realization and philosophy of the mind throughout the novel. The story is simple enough. The main character Alex is a CanLit graduate student in Montreal during the 1980s. Alex is a self-loathing, sexually promiscuous, and fundamentally racist person that as a reader you wouldn't immediately be drawn to. But a series of relationships and events intersect his life which causes Alex to pause and reflect on the destructive lifestyle he has led to date. The subplot throughout is the life of Charles Darwin who wrote the original "Origin of Species", that manifesto on the theory of evolution. Ricci metaphorically links Alex to Darwin throughout the book showing the parallel paths each took. Frankly, I thought the connection was a little contrived, but Ricci does a decent job using Darwin as a bookend. Set in the tumult of the Quebec sovereignty question, Ricci carefully contextualizes the many debates. The book jacket plays up the historical context but to honest, it doesn't feature prominently in either the writing or the plot other than a couple of sprinkles here and there. If anything, philosophy and sociology are used throughout so if you're unfamiliar with Derrida, Foucault, Darwin (of course), or Malthus better keep wikipedia handy. This is my first Ricci book so I'm not sure if this is how he writes all his books but the writing is realistically explicit and graphic. At times, I felt a little too cynical, too realistic, certainly one could characterize the novel as cynical realism. But I mean it in the most positive way, I dislike reading books that are too patronizing. Overall, I think Ricci has a real gem here. I would not be surprised to see it made into a film someday. The book is quite lengthy and with the non-linear style it may require you to read it a little slower, but all the more reason to appreciate the true brilliance of the writing.
Date published: 2008-12-06

Read from the Book

Part One–May 1986–There has never been a document of culture which was not at one and the same time a document of barbarism.Walter Benjamin“Theses on the Philosophy of History,” VIIChapter 1The girl standing in the foyer when Alex went down to get his mail, trembling slightly on her cane, was Esther. Not a girl, really: a woman. Everyone in the building knew her. Or everyone, it seemed, except Alex, who, in the few months since he’d moved here, had never quite managed to be the one to open a door for her, or put her key in her mailbox, or start a conversation with her in the oppressive intimacy of the building’s elevators.She was looking out through the plate glass of the entrance doors to the street, where sunlight now glinted off the morning’s earlier sprinkling of rain.“I wouldn’t go out there if you don’t have to,” Alex said, then regretted at once his admonitory tone.From the confusion that came over her, plain as if a shadow had crossed her, it was clear she hadn’t understood.“The rain,” he said.“Oh!” She looked up through her thickish glasses at the now cloudless sky and her whole face seemed to twist with the strain of trying to follow his meaning.“Chernobyl,” he said, making a botch of it. “The fallout. They say you shouldn’t go out if it’s rained.”“Oh-h-h!” She drew the word out as if in understanding. “Really? They say that? Oh!”“They’re saying the clouds might pick the radiation up over Russia, then dump it somewhere else. At least, I think that’s what they’re saying.”It suddenly occurred to Alex, though the story had been practically the only thing in the news since the Swedes had broken it a few days before, that she didn’t have any idea what he was talking about.“You know, I heard about that,” she said, and Alex was relieved. “About Chernobyl. Isn’t it awful?”They stood there an instant while Alex half-turned, not wanting to put his back to her, and awkwardly retrieved his mail, which was just junk, it looked like. But in that instant’s lull it seemed he’d lost whatever conversational thread there’d been between them.Esther was still standing at the doors, neither going out nor coming in.“You wouldn’t happen to have a cigarette, would you?” she said finally, looking right at him. “I mean, if you could spare one.”That was how the day had got started. Alex did indeed have cigarettes, but up in his apartment, and although he’d considered lying – he didn’t like the idea of giving a cigarette to someone who was clearly Not Well – it finally ended up, despite his protestations that he simply fetch one for her, that Esther followed him to his place to get one herself. There weren’t any more awkward silences from then on: in the elevator Esther launched at once into a disarming rush of revealing personal anecdote, so that by the time they got out at Alex’s floor he was dizzy with excess information.“What about you? I don’t even know your name.”“Alex. It’s Alex.” Then he added, stupidly, “Alex Fratarcangeli.”“Oh! Really? Frater – oh! That’s interesting.”“Don’t worry,” he said quickly. “I can’t even pronounce it myself.”Alex’s apartment was on the seventeenth floor, which had been the chief selling point when he’d rented the place, some feeling still surging in him – hope? vertigo? – each time he opened his door to the expanse of cityscape and sky through his living room windows. He’d left the radio on, tuned to the CBC: there was an interview coming up with the prime minister that Alex was perversely anxious to catch, largely because he despised the prime minister, from the very depth of his being, despised every false word that dropped from his big-chinned false mouth. He could hear the interview coming on as he unlocked the door, Peter Gzowski’s honeyed coo and then the mellow low of the prime minister, false, false, although Peter, and this was the side of him that Alex couldn’t stomach, simply carried on in his fawning amiability as if the man was actually to be taken seriously.Esther was still talking. So far, Alex had learned that she was a student, like he was, at Concordia, though he hadn’t been able to gather in exactly what; that she’d grown up in Côte St. Luc, a possibly Jewish neighbourhood somewhere on the outskirts of the city, though he couldn’t have said exactly where; that she lived in the building because it had a pool in it, though he couldn’t quite reconcile this detail with her condition, which seemed to involve some issues of motor control. The fact was he was finding it hard to attend to her, not only because he was a bit overwhelmed by her barrage of talk and because he couldn’t quite help trying to catch the interview going on in the background, but because of a host of other matters clamouring for attention at the back of his brain: his appointment with Dr. Klein, for which he somehow already seemed destined to be late; his class at the Refugee Centre, for which he’d hardly prepared; his final lesson at Berlitz with Félix, his cash cow, and the concomitant prospect of a depressingly low-income summer; his theory exam the following day, for which he’d hardly studied. Then there was the phone call home he had to make, the post-exam party he had to host, the grant forms he had to fill out, and in the middle and not-so-far distance the questions he did not even dare to give a shape to at the moment, though they were the pit above which everything else seemed precariously suspended.In the background, the prime minister, having dodged the subject of Libya, was going on about Chernobyl, trying to cast himself as the calm leader in troubled times. Please, Peter, please, Alex thought, ask him a tough question. Though in truth, Alex revered Peter: he credited him with his own discovery of Canada, which had happened, ironically, in the couple of years since Alex had left Canada proper for the foreign country of Quebec. And he revered him despite his occasional fawning, his boyish stutter, his too-frequent feel-good pieces on apple baking or native spiritualism or peewee hockey; and also despite, or maybe because of, the comments you sometimes read, usually buried by timid editors in the last paragraphs of lengthy profiles, that the instant the mike was turned off – though Alex could understand this perfectly: the mike was who he was, what he gave everything to – he turned into an unmitigated bastard.Esther, who by now had settled herself on his couch, was explaining to him the notion of something she called “an exacerbation.” With a start, Alex realized she had been telling him about her illness. It began to sink in that she’d actually named it and he’d let that crucial bit of information get by him. Somehow, she’d managed to slip the thing in as if it were just a casual aside: Oh, by the way, I have blah­blah.“So what about you, Alex? What do you do?”“I’m at Concordia, too,” he said, realizing, guiltily, that he ought to have brought this up earlier. “I mean, I study there.”“Really? You don’t say! What a coincidence!”In fact, it wasn’t much of a coincidence at all: probably half the people in the building were students at Concordia, whose hub, the infamously ugly Hall Building, stood just kitty-corner to them.When Alex tried to explain his program his description struck him as even more convoluted and opaque than Esther’s had been of her own. He’d initially been admitted to the university under Interdisciplinary Studies, in a mix of literary theory and evolutionary biology, of all things. But then the university had decided it couldn’t handle such a broad crossing of disciplines and he’d ended up in the English Department.“I guess I’m trying to find the way to bring the arts and sciences together,” he said. “You know, a sort of Grand Unified Theory.”“Oh – you mean – art and science –”The shadow had crossed her ­again.“That’s just a fancy way of saying I don’t really know what I’m doing.”Alex had long ago handed over the cigarette Esther had come for, but she had placed it carefully in the little pink handbag in padded silk that she carried over her shoulder, struggling a bit with the clasp, though he hadn’t known whether to offer help. To have with her cappuccino, she’d said, which was where she’d been heading when Alex had run into her.“Do you really think it’s dangerous to go out?”“I dunno, the rain’s probably all evaporated by now. Anyway, I doubt we’re any safer inside.”She had risen and stood leaning on her cane at his door. Alex didn’t like to admit to his relief at finally seeing her go – they hadn’t been together more than twenty minutes, yet he felt exhausted.In the background, the prime minister’s interview was winding to a close.Well, Peter, I know Canadians just love what you’re doing here.“Say,” Esther said, “you know what? I have an idea. I could buy you a cappuccino, in exchange for the cigarette. I mean, if you’re not busy.”Alex’s heart sank. It seemed unfair somehow to brandish his excuses at her, exactly because he had such good ones. It was that face, the transparency of it, the bit of desperation he saw in it now. She’d met a man, it seemed to say – even if it was as poor a specimen as Alex – and wanted him to like her.“That would be great,” he said, “I’d love that,” feeling himself draw a little closer to the pit.The entire mood between them shifted with Alex’s acceptance. Esther’s bright, false, coming-on personality replaced with a kind of childlike triumphalism. In the elevator, she hooked an arm in his and batted her eyes at him with exaggerated coquettishness.“I guess you’ll just have to help a po’ little sick girl like me,” she said, then added “Ha, ha, ha,” to make clear she was joking. Alex had instinctively tensed when she’d taken hold of him as though expecting some jolt, some clammy frisson of diseased flesh, but in fact her grip was warm and firm. She had taken possession of him, it seemed to say, and would do what was needed to hold on to her claim.Outside, they found the rain had indeed misted off into the ether, though whether the air hummed with evil ions in its wake, Alex couldn’t have said. In Sweden, radiation had reached a hundred times the normal level, and people were taking pills to protect their thyroid. No one knew if that was the worst of it – on the news reports so far, there hadn’t been a single image from the site. Instead, they kept replaying the clip from Soviet TV where a matronly anchorwoman, posed against a background of washed-out blue, had given the first official announcement of the thing, in four bland, unhelpful sentences.Everything about the day, however, belied Alex’s sense of threat: the sun was out, the air was crystalline, and winter was gone, gone. There’d been ice on the ground only two weeks before, right into mid-April, the bane of Montreal living. But then a warm wind had come up and thawed the city overnight. The trees in the little church park at St. James the Apostle already had the intimation of leaves, a flock of something, starlings or sparrows or finches, chattering in their limbs.Then there was Esther, for whom Chernobyl seemed little more than a conversation point. It was indeed true that everyone knew Esther: there was hardly a person they’d passed on the way out who hadn’t greeted her, and then once they were on the street all the shopkeepers called out to her as well, from the little depanneur on the ground floor of their building, from the hairdresser’s next door, from the little sandwich shop at the corner of St. Catherine. Almost to a one they winked at her for the good fortune of having a man on her arm. If Esther saw any condescension in this she didn’t show it, refusing nothing, no attention or offering.“Oh, that’s Ilie,” she said, “he’s the one who usually gives me my cigarettes,” and, “That’s Claire, she gives me free haircuts.”To his surprise, Alex actually found himself liking the attention they were getting. The world seemed different with Esther by his side: he’d hardly even noticed the sandwich shop on the corner before, or, for that matter, the church park. He also had never been to the Crescent Street strip, where Esther was leading him. It was only a couple of blocks over from their building, but had always seemed hopelessly tawdry and touristy next to his former haunts on the Plateau. Today, though, in the spring sun, radiation or no, he couldn’t understand why he’d avoided the place – it looked so sprightly and European and gay, with its little cafés all with their tables out front and their fancy railings and stylishly dressed servers.The place Esther brought him to, however, was one of the cheesier ones, a glitzy bar called Chez Sud done up in an overwrought tropical motif like some Club Med resort, their cappuccinos actually coming out with little coloured umbrellas on them. Normally, Alex would never have ordered a cappuccino; it somehow irked his ethnic sensibilities, this passion everyone suddenly had for them. But he had to admit he liked the taste.“I love this place,” Esther said. “I come here all the time.” And indeed it was clear from how everyone greeted her that she was well-known here, though the waitress gave Alex a conspiratorial smile behind Esther’s back as if to sympathize with his having got saddled with her.Alex pulled his chair a bit closer to Esther’s.“It’s just great,” he said.Alex had planned to quickly down his coffee and then beg off back home to his work. But he wasn’t quite as anxious to be going as he ought to have been: the sun was shining and he was out here in the world, with Esther.“It’s very interesting what you were telling me,” Esther said. “About the arts and sciences. That’s very interesting.”“Oh, well. Maybe not so interesting.”

Bookclub Guide

1. Discuss the many pairings of fathers and sons in the novel. Do you see an underlying theme in their depictions? How does it relate to the theme of the novel itself?2. Discuss Alex’s relationships with older male authority figures. How is he different with each of them? Why do you think this is?3. Consider Alex’s description of Peter Gzowski on page 5, and later when he compares him to God. Why is the radio host so omnipresent in Alex’s mind?4. Discuss the character of Desmond. Why is Alex in his “thrall,” as he puts it on page 269? What does Alex ultimately learn from his time with Desmond?5. Discuss Alex’s relationships with the women in his life. How is he different with each of them? Why do you think this is?6. Alex fantasizes about writing a novel about a character named K who is so overwhelmed by the significance of every action and object in his life that he comes to the brink of self-destruction, before a ray of hope breaks through. (p 194) Do you see any parallels between the actual novel and the one in Alex’s imagination?7. In the horrifying scene in which Alex and Santos are surrounded by putrifying fish, Alex wonders about the food chain, “What could it mean, this stupid cycle? What comfort or purpose was in it?” (p. 324) What does this question say about his state of mind at the time? Will he find an answer? What do you think it is?8. Consider the structure of this novel, split into three parts with the novella-length Galapagos section inserted midway, and an epilogue at the close. Why do you think Ricci chose to structure his novel this way? How is each section distinct? How are the quotes that begin each section significant?9. Read the opening of Alex’s thesis proposal, starting on page 399, about storytelling and narrative as key to human evolutionary success. What do you think of his idea?10. Why do you think Alex feels compelled to hike up Mount Royal to see the cross (part 3, chapter 10)? What changes after that walk?11. In the Epilogue, Alex considers the relationship Darwin had with his relatively unlucky cousin Alfred Russel Wallace. Why do you think this is relevant to Alex’s life?12. Consider Ricci’s description of the hope growing inside Alex using the metaphor of a bird. (page 471) What does hope mean for Alex? Where else do birds figure in the novel? If you are able, look up the poem by Emily Dickinson (a contemporary of Darwin) that begins, “Hope is the thing with feathers”. Do you see any parallels between Dickinson’s poem and this book?13. Discuss Alex’s revelation about the “not-quite-describable thingness of things”. (p. 469) Have you come across such a concept before? What does it mean to you? How does it contrast with the Victorian scientific urge to name and categorize?14. This novel is very much steeped in the time and place of mid-1980’s Montreal. What do you think of Ricci’s depiction of the political climate and culture? Did it feel accurate?

Editorial Reviews

“Ricci’s masterstroke to date. This novel does so well, on so many levels, that it’s hard to know where to begin tallying up the riches. . . . An ambitious, thrilling novel that resists encapsulation and takes not a single misstep . . . it is also bitterly, achingly funny.” — Toronto Star“The Origin of Species is a profoundly moving novel that lovingly creates a world of flawed but very real characters.” — Winnipeg Free Press“An entertaining and emotionally rewarding read, this book will transport Nino Ricci to further heights of literary stardom and could well overtake his first, Lives of the Saints, as his signature work — much as the original Origin of Species did to the career and life of Charles Darwin.” — Ottawa Citizen