book review: The Hormone Factory

hormone factory

<em> The Hormone Factory</em> by Saskia Goldschmidt. Publisher: Other Press [November 2014]. Fiction. Hardcover. 304 pages.

The cover, title and description pulled me in and the stirring, gossipy, colorful writing kept me in this debut novel by Dutch author Saskia Goldschmidt. This is historical fiction at its best. The ruthless and debauched Mordechai De Paauw recalls his experiences as Dutch co-founder and CEO of the first pharmaceutical company to invent and manufacture the contraceptive pill and hormone treatments. He runs a meat factory. He’s not a scientist but he realizes that animal organs which the company discards daily could be used for experiments. De Paauw would increase his wealth and gain power and prestige: “I walked outside and just stood there staring at the colossal mountain of offal in our factory yard. Who’d have thought that stinking pile contained unsuspected riches, like the copper ore trapped in rock deep in the earth’s crust, or the gold in the mud of a riverbed?”

He’s imprudent and corrupt about a lot of things. He experiments on and sexually exploits his female workers. There’s one employee that he calls “Fat Bertha” and summons to his office for sexual trysts on the regular. He also walks into the factory and selects women as if ordering from a menu. They must see the boss in his office or endure dire consequences. In the ultimate in blurred lines, De Paauw admits: “I must confess their inhibitions didn’t always hold me back. There’s something titillating in a little resistance, I find; a bit of a struggle, a head-shaking no, a hand fending me off, a tussle, until the wench accepts the inevitable and lets you have your way, limp as a lab rabbit receiving an injection.”

Disturbing on many levels. The language. The disrespect. The idea of getting [or really taking] what you want when you want no matter who gets hurt. The compulsion. You wonder how this guy can be this wicked. How can he abuse his employees, take short-cuts but be successful in numerous ways. His rather mild-mannered twin brother Aaron gets imprisoned due to De Paauw’s manipulations. His wife keeps reminding him of his “everlasting impatience” and that others might know much more than her husband. De Paauw refuses to accept these facts. Their marriage unravels after his brother’s imprisonment and a factory girl getting pregnant with his child at almost the same time his wife Rivka becomes pregnant with their first son. Thus De Paauw later admits: “I kept my distance from the factory girls; I had learned my lesson, but even in the new puritan atmosphere there were plenty of attractive, available women.”

“My need for such one-night stands began to lessen when, in the mid-nineteen-fifties, I met Diane Drabble in New York. She was one of the rare female chemists at the time and worked in tour U.S. lab. She was an intelligent, fine-looking woman and had nothing in common with the prim little misses mincing through the fifties in their coy wasp-waisted dresses, their nylons and garder belts, the immaculate white collars, the veiled little hats, the silk gloves, the clicking stiletto heels and prissy pocketbook in which, in a kind of courtship ritual, they were constantly fumbling to pull out a power compact, a lipstick, an embroidered handkerchief or a chrome cigarette case.”

What drove men to develop birth control? Not that all men are sexist and anti-feminist. Some men believe in equality and the greater good. De Paauw enjoyed the idea of having sex with as many women as possible and reducing the probability he’d impregnate them. He’s wealthy and powerful after all. That’s why he had to marry his wife. She got pregnant. Today men still make decisions and impose themselves onto women’s choices. Many men (and women) created The Pill and IUDs and hormone treatments such as Plan B but now in the United States, men want to restrict women’s access to protect themselves and maintain control over their bodies and their sexual experiences. The Hormone Factory delves into the time right before and during WWII when these advances became real possibilities. As WWII heightens and Hitler invades Holland, the future seems bleak for De Paauw, his company–many Jewish scientists for there– and his Jewish family. The family flees to England.

Goldschmidt works as a drama teacher and children’s theater director. The Hormone Factory‘s based on the real Organon. The Van Zwanenberg Slaughterhouse and Factories founded in 1887 by twin brothers. In 1923, Saal van Zwanenberg established Organon to develop medicine from meat waste products. Goldschmidt’s father survived the concentration camp Bergen Belsen. In the afterword she writes: “It took me over fifty years to find the courage to research my family’s history and to probe what kind of influence that history and my father’s concentration camp stay had on me. She published a memoir Obliged to Be Happy: A Portrait of a Family in 2011. The author’s theatrical background and meticulous research influenced the credibility and flair of this debut novel. Goldschmidt uses impeccable tone and extraordinary detail. Though covering a serious subject, it’s at times amusing with its dry wit. She paints the story in gray not black and white. Quite effective as many flawed characters might express regret or comprehension for their actions and words.

RATING: ****/5

review by Amy Steele

<em>FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Other Press.</em>

purchase at Amazon: The Hormone Factory: A Novel

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