After receiving a mysterious email from her mother telling her that there is an emergency, seventeen year old Sophie Crue arrives in Guam searching for someone to take her to Skin Island. None of the local pilots are interested, warning her away from travelling to the strange isolated island, except for one pilot, Jim Julien. Sophie recognizes Jim immediately but he doesn't remember her until she tells him that she needs to get out to Skin Island.
Sophie used to live on Guam with her parents who both worked at the Skin Island research facility. However, when her parent's marriage broke up, she moved to Boston with her father while her mother stayed on at Skin Island full time. Jim's parents broke up three years ago when he was fifteen, his mother left Guam. His father once a pilot for tourists now drinks himself into a stupor daily.
Jim agrees to fly Sophie out to Skin Island in his Cessna Caravan. As expected, things go wrong almost immediately. When they land on the island's airstrip, all four tires on the Cessna are blown. A young boy, named Nicholas comes to greet them and while he takes Sophie across the island to meet her mother, Jim stays with his airplane to see if he can repair it.
As Sophie is led across the island by Nicholas, he begins acting very strangely, telling her to be quiet when they approach the facility. When she questions him on the type of research being done on Skin Island he only smiles enigmatically He leads her to complex and once inside the facility, Sophie manages to escape from him. When Sophie is forced to hide in a room, she discovers it holds a young woman asleep on a gurney who looks remarkably like herself. Sophie is knocked out from behind.
When Sophie awakes she finds herself in a lab with her mother, Moira, and several doctors as well as a middle aged man. Unable to speak, Sophie learns that this man, Mr. Andreyev is here to see her and that they think that she is the twin, Lux, she saw in the room. Sophie decides to play along, mute and unable to walk to learn more about what is happening. As it turns out her mother is not researching cures for Alzheimer's. Instead, this facility is doing research on frozen left over embryos from in vitro procedures. These embryos have a computer chip that has a special code called the Imprima Code implanted in their brains at just the right time so brain grows around it. At nine months gestation, they transfer data to the chip. Sophie's mother, Moira developed the imprint technology which isolated the imprinting instinct and amplifies it so that when the young person is awoken after years of sleep they imprint on the first person they see. The imprint creates a deep psychological need in the person and the desire to do the will of the person they imprint on. The doctors explain that Lux has no will of her own and no sense of self. Sophie also learns that Lux is a Class Three Bodyguard meaning she is prepared to defend the person she has imprinted on.
Meanwhile Jim, unable to repair the tires on his plane, manages to roll the Cessna down to the beach and secure it in the water. He waits for a time to see if Sophie returns and when she doesn't he makes his way across the island to the research facility. There he too discovers the room holding Sophie's twin. But Jim, thinking this is Sophie who has been drugged, snatches her and makes his way out of the facility and back to his plane. Unfortunately,what Jim doesn't know is that he is carrying Sophie's twin, Lux, who was being awakened today for a potential buyer.
Things begin to go badly for Jim when he runs into three young people from the island, Mary, Jay and Wyatt who behave in a hostile manner and give chase to him. Jim escapes from them but during the chase, Lux awakens, seeing Jim first and imprinting on him.Gradually Jim comes to realize that this is not Sophie and that he needs to go for help.
Moira eventually realizes that Sophie is playing the part of Lux. She isolates Sophie to try to protect her from Dr. Strauss and sets out to try to find Lux. Nicholas finally manages to meet up with Sophie again and he tells her that he was the first Vitro and that he wants Sophie to help him escape by stealing Corpus' helicopter. However, with Lux and Jim missing, and Sophie refusing to leave unless Jim is with her, Nicholas' plans are unravelling. As more information is revealed about the dark nature of the experiments going on on Skin Island, Sophie has to come to terms with her connection to the island and try to save her mother and Jim before all is lost.
The story in Vitro is told by three narrators, Sophie, Jim and Lux. The novel could have done without the short narration by Lux - her perspective did not really add significantly to the story. There are numerous twists to the storyline which at times is convoluted and dragged out. Some situations stretched credibility enormously. Can we really believe that a seventeen year old girl who receives a mysterious email from her mother whom she rarely sees, simply leaves home and travels by herself to learn what has happened without any input from her father? In a situation eerily similar to the Nazi death camps, we learn that the research facility has showers that serve as gas chambers. As well, the entire compound has numerous cannisters of hydrogen cyanide gas underneath it. Dr. Strauss at one point decides to kill all the Vitros by exposing them to hydrogen cyanide gas. This scene was not written realistically in any way, since Jim and Lux would have had to have been treated with a cyanide antidote which did not happen in the novel. They would have been in no shape to participate in the events that followed having suffered from extreme cyanide poisoning.
Although this is science fiction, Vitro is more action-adventure than anything else. The stuff Jim endures is most remarkable and reads more like a Hollywood action film; a crash landing, rolling his plane by himself into the sea, numerous chases, a fall off a cliff into a lagoon, an explosion in his plane when he tries to leave the island, a swim back to Skin Island, poisoning by hydrogen cyanide and an explosion that throws him into the sea. All this makes Vitro overly dramatic and at times, tiresome.
Because the story was more action based, we learn little about the characters other than Sophie and her mother. Jim who was a main character in the novel was mostly a one dimensional hero whose function is primarily to provide Sophie with a means of escape from the island.
Vitro has a great cover but is no match for Khoury's first novel, Origins.
New York: Razorbill a Division of Penguin Young Readers Group