While tearfully accepting her Best Actress Oscar for Black Swan, a pregnant Natalie Portman thanked “my beautiful love Benjamin Millepied, who choreographed the film and has now given me my most important role of my life.” But before gushing about her fiancé, Portman thanked her parents “for giving [her] the opportunity to work from such an early age.” Around the same time, Portman’s father, Dr. Avner Hershlag was working too… on his self-published debut novel, Misconception.
One of the country’s most renowned reproductive specialists, the Yale-educated Hershlag is Director of the Donor Egg and Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis, Director of Fertility Laboratories, and Medical Director of the In Vitro Fertilization Program at the Center for Human Reproduction in North Shore, Long Island. Clearly, he knows a lot about making babies and hopefully for Portman, her situation is far from the plot of Misconception.
Dr. Hershlag’s debut novel is set in Washington D.C. and centers on Dr. Anya Krim, the fertility specialist for the President and his wife. She delivers a deformed baby with “ambiguous genitalia” who later goes missing and its mother is found dead. Krim then discovers Megan Tanner, a senator’s daughter who has been in a coma for two years, is also pregnant. Senator Tanner is the Majority Whip, and chairman of a senate committee overhearing a controversial Embryonic Stem Cell Bill in Congress. If Dr. Krim—a rape victim herself—didn’t have enough on her petri dish, the First Lady’s last-ditch effort to conceive goes haywire when her embryos are kidnapped from the lab.
And that’s only the beginning.
Below [SPOILER ALERT!] are the craziest moments from Dr. Hershlag’s novel.
1. THE “ODDBALL” MICROPENIS CASE
Misconception’s prologue opens with a doctor inspecting the pubic region of a 12-year-old male patient. He first notes that the boy has no pubic hair. Then, the doctor takes “oddballs” (i.e. plastic balls) and measures them against the young boy’s testicles, noting that the boy’s balls are “size one.” (Pg. xiii) The doctor proceeds to measure the boy’s penis with a yardstick, noting that it is 1.5-inches long. He informs the boy and his doting mother that the child has “Fragile Y Syndrome,” meaning that his X chromosome is fine, but his Y chromosome is weak. In other words: “His penis and testicles will always be small” and he’ll grow up tall and skinny with “a micropenis and two microtesticles.” (Pg. xiii) The story then flashes forward 28 years—the boy has grown up to become Hugh Nicholson, the head of a cloning facility where he and his partner, Dr. Jeremy “Cody” Coddington, duplicate dogs for up to $100,000 apiece.
“She undressed. Her fingers released the knot in his tie like a trained Girl Scout… unhooked the below-knee prosthesis, placed it against the wall, and got under the covers.”
2. MYSTERIOIUSLY PREGNANT, COMATOSE “ANTONIO” LOVER
Megan Tanner is the coma-stricken teenage daughter of Wyoming Senator Nelson Tanner III—a scar-faced, Armani-clad Vietnam vet with a prosthetic leg. She lapsed into the coma after her pot-smoking prom date crashed his car into a tree and the Senator apparently disposed of the teenage driver. Megan has been in a coma for two years, yet she’s mysteriously 20 weeks pregnant. Dr. Krim assumes that her comatose patient has been raped in her sleep by a necrophiliac, which triggers memories of Krim’s own rape eight years prior. As the FBI investigates the case, Megan’s rests in her hospital quarters—a recreation of her own room at home, with “posters of Antonio Banderas, Antonio Sabato Jr., Sarah Chang, Tara Lipinski, and Maroon 5.” (Pg. 13) [Huh?]
3. THE BLACK SWAN CONNECTION
At one point, Dr. Krim gets in a heated argument with her Lincoln University Hospital co-worker Dr. Feinberg, the chairman of the Center for Human Reproduction. Feinberg—Krim’s supposed nemesis—sports a glass eye because it’s rumored that “an angry resident who couldn’t tolerate his mockery had stabbed his left eye with a scalpel.” He wants to abort Megan’s unborn child via C-section, despite it being 20 weeks along. Krim fights Feinberg and refuses to give in, saying [out of nowhere], “I can see this little girl grow up, take ballet lessons, maybe even get really good, a prodigy of sorts.” Feinberg doesn’t want to hear about her possible principal dancer future, saying, “Terminate—or be terminated.” (Pgs. 78-79)
4. FORGET VIAGRA: TRY AN ERECTILE DYSFUNCTION INJECTION!
The deformed baby Dr. Krim delivers has been cloned by Fragile Y Syndrome sufferer Hugh Nicholson, who intended the child to be the heir to an unnamed royal for $10 million. Nicholson has his partner Cody inject “three different medicines, which together erased muscle relaxation and increased blood flow to create an erection” into the shaft of his penis. (Pg. 40) This is just another day at the office for Cody and it is Nicholson’s effort to have sex with one of the five surrogates working for him. She apparently finds their sexual exploits pleasurable despite the fact that Nicholson has micro genitalia and major issues—we find out he is a bizarre megalomaniac. (Pg. 44)
5. IF D.C. LOBBYIST LOOKS COULD KILL…
A sexy “lobbyist” named Destiny, who Nicholson uses to seduce politicians on Capitol Hill, attempts to bed Senator Tanner. The one-legged Vietnam vet is serving as chairman of the Senate committee overseeing the Embryonic Stem Cell Bill. “She undressed. Her fingers released the knot in his tie like a trained Girl Scout…Tanner sat on the bed, unhooked the below-knee prosthesis, placed it against the wall, and got under the covers.” Destiny says, “You’ve got to untense, Nelson. There are no Democrats in this room.” She then attempts to serve him a glass of Merlot, at which point, Nelson throws the drink on the floor, and, suspecting she’s a spy, screams, “Get dressed and evaporate.” (Pg. 54) Destiny later attempts to seduce a 70-something conservative senator in a hotel suite—also in an effort to get him to favor the Embryonic Stem Cell Bill. But after she undresses, the senator has a heart attack and drops dead. (Pg. 99)
6. THE FIRST BABY A.K.A. “OPERATION EASTER”
The President and the First Lady are trying to have a baby, which the Secret Service codenamed “Operation Easter.” Despite several attempts at in vitro fertilization, the First Lady—a 42-year-old breast cancer survivor—has been unable to conceive. Dr. Krim has a brief moment of panic before the in vitro procedure: “In a moment, I’ll be sticking a needle in the vagina of the First Lady of the United States. Nothing is routine about this case. And everything is at stake!” (Pg. 91) The first couple’s embryos are later kidnapped from Dr. Krim’s lab.
7. BEWARE THE HUNKY BOYFRIEND’S “SNAKE”
After Dr. Krim is nearly killed by two chiseled thugs, one of which sports “an elaborate tattoo of a dragon” across his biceps, (Pg. 146) she goes home to her “hunky” boyfriend, Dr. Dario D’Acosta (who just happens to be Senator Tanner’s therapist). Battered and bruised, D’Acosta runs her bath and lights some fragrant candles. He then gives her an erotic massage, before kissing “her nipples democratically, one kiss for each,” and then taking her to the bedroom, where they embrace—sans clothing—in bed. “When she felt his hardness,” however, “the feelings evaporated.” Dr. Krim is painfully reminded of her rape eight years prior. “The python’s going to bite me!” she thinks and pleads for D’Acosta to stop. Her longtime partner, becomes a paragon of patience, saying, “I understand.” (Pg. 151)
8. SECRET IDENTITIES REVEALED
In a pair of twists reminiscent of an M. Night Shyamalan film, a DNA test on Megan’s baby reveals that Senator Tanner is the father of the his comatose daughter’s child. The President of the United States—a longtime friend of Tanner’s—orders Dr. Krim to abort the baby. Meanwhile, it’s revealed that the seductive lobbyist “Destiny” is actually Caroline, Dr. Krim’s trusted embryologist. (Pg. 177) Caroline betrays Dr. Krim, taking pictures of the presidential embryos and sending a ransom email with photos to the First Lady that reads: “Greetings from your embryos… for the time being, your children-to-be are safe and sound with me… In upcoming messages, I will inform you of the kind of actions you must take to bring your embryos home unharmed… Make enough stupid moves, and you can kiss motherhood good-bye.” (Pg. 181)
9. THE DESTINY OF THE NOT-SO-SWEET CAROLINE
Dr. Krim is framed and arrested by the FBI for kidnapping the embryos. However, she’s bailed out of prison after an anonymous person pays her $1 million bond. Fresh out of jail, Dr. Krim receives an anonymous email to check the liquid nitrogen tanks back at her lab. In the third tank, she finds “a woman’s head floating in a pool of liquid nitrogen. It was detached from the body. It had no neck.” The woman is Destiny/Caroline! (Pg. 220)
10. MOMMY DEAREST STRIKES
Gladys Tanner, the wife of Senator Tanner, turns out to be the one who had a clone of Megan placed in her uterus, in order to save her marriage to Senator Tanner, who loved his daughter dearly. Nicholson’s sympathetic associate, Cody—an old friend of Dr. Krim’s—clones the First Lady’s embryos before Nicholson forces him to get rid of the real ones. But the presidential SWAT team recovers the cloned embryos with barely enough time for Dr. Krim to inject them into the First Lady, who eventually finds herself pregnant.
11. CONQUERING A FEAR OF SNAKES
With all the loose ends tied, Dr. Krim can finally make love to her remarkably patient boyfriend, Dr. D’Acosta, who has been by her side every step of the way. He “waited for her at his bedroom door, holding two glasses of wine. The only lights in the room came from scented candles he’d lit around the bed. A Chopin nocturne played in the background…” and then, the loving couple finally has sex, with Dr. Krim getting over her fear of erections once and for all. (Pgs. 270-271)
Marlow Stern works for The Daily Beast and has a master's from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He has served in the editorial department of Blender magazine, as an editor at Amplifier magazine, and, since 2007, editor of Manhattan Movie Magazine.