In the opening scene of the series premiere of Orphan Black, a ne’er-do-well named Sarah Manning is witness to a grisly suicide…of a woman whose face looks exactly like her own. From this setup follows a thrilling story of stolen identity, madness, and fringe science. If all that doesn’t make you run for the nearest DVD boxed set, then you’re made of stronger stuff than me. Here’s what you should read once Orphan Black has given you a taste for mind-blowing plot twists, characters who aren’t what they say they are, and weird science (Spoiler alert: the barest outline of the show’s wild premise revealed below. If you’ve read anything about Orphan Black, you already know it):
The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith
In episode one, Sarah Manning slips not-so-seamlessly into the life of a woman who shared her face (and, ya know, DNA). As the ultimate chameleon, Ripley would’ve done it better, and he wouldn’t have had any pesky morality issues holding him back from really digging into the part. Highsmith’s highly practical sociopath Ripley takes a rich man’s commission to convince his golden-boy son to come home from sunny Italy, but instead finds himself drawn by fascination, envy, and greed into taking over the young man’s life.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, by Haruki Murakami
Murakami’s works are filled with strange encounters, sudden disappearances, and alternate realms, often counterbalanced by the perfect equanimity of their just-north-of disaffected narrators. This book’s stellar title calls out both threads of its alternating narrative, one a tale of a man’s noirish introduction to Tokyo’s super-surreal underbelly, the other the story of life in a curiously muted, high-walled town, full of unicorns and harvested dreams. Eventually the threads connect, as the Tokyo hero comes to understand, as do the women of Orphan Black, the ways extralegal experimentation can deep six your life plan.
The Husband’s Secret, by Liane Moriarty
Sarah’s sisters in clonehood have followed wildly divergent paths, and she’s most horrified to learn that she’s related—in a way—to a soccer mom. But so much great fiction relies on the fact that darkness thrives in suburban spaces, tucked away under formica countertops and embedded in the DNA of tupperware parties and potlucks (and even church bake sales). Orphan Black exploits this trope fully as does Moriarty’s addictive thriller. The titular husband has a secret rivaling many in Orphan Black, and I challenge you to read the first page and not feel the urge to devour the whole thing. (Binge watching is, of course, a cousin to binge reading).
The Lost Girl, by Sangu Mandanna
To a point this YA novel echoes the central premise of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, about a subclass of clones built for the purpose of providing fresh parts for their originals. But Mandanna focuses her lens on a single clone, Eva, created not as an organ donor but as a full-on replacement in the case of her original’s death. She’s only a teen when her original, Amarra, dies in a car crash, and her attempt to take over the dead girl’s life is choppy and disorienting for both her and her new family. When impersonating Amarra becomes life-threatening, Eva strikes out in an attempt to build a life as an original.
The Accidental, by Ali Smith
In Smith’s slender, hair-raising novel, there’s a cuckoo in the Smart family nest. Amber, a beautiful, half-feral young woman, drifts uninvited into their rented family vacation home, and doesn’t leave till she’s systematically exposed their every weakness. Just as Orphan Black star Tatiana Maslany cycles through multiple personas in each episode, so does Smith work in numerous voices, writing from the perspectives of the dreamy Smart family daughter, her troubled older brother, their self-aggrandizing professor father, and their blocked-writer headcase of a mom.
Are you planning to watch Orphan Black?