The Hormone Factory

Written by Saskia Goldschmidt
Review by Jessica Brockmole

Mordechai de Paauw—womanizer, cheat, and ruthless businessman—is a despicable man, yet the perfect narrator. The heir to a Dutch meatpacking family, Motke aspires to more than butchering. He strikes a deal with the suave Rafaël Levine, a professor of pharmacology and a German. Though neither trusts the other, they create a pharmaceuticals company, using the waste products of the meatpacking factory to seek out and extract hormones. With Motke handling the business and Levine the science they produce insulin, standardize estrogen, discover testosterone, and develop The Pill. While Motke revels in his wealth and power, the urbane Levine sees the research as a scientific quest for the human soul. As Hitler’s reach begins stretching across Europe, defining humanity becomes suddenly more urgent.

This is a meandering tale, told by Motke on his deathbed with an almost reprehensible lack of awareness. He is an engaging narrator, despite his other faults, even when the reader begins to wonder whether to believe him. You will not find much dialogue or thrilling action sequences. The other characters are intentionally painted thinly, just as he sees them, as a collection of hormones and organs. While his partner spent decades searching for the “soul hormone,” Motke disregarded the soul. Under his hand, women were exploited, families were broken, people were thrust into poverty, and more than one person died. The book is the rambling of an old man desperate to tell his side of the story, but instead only managing to reinforce why we shouldn’t have listened in the first place. He’s vicious, misogynistic, narcissistic, and cowardly. In the end, he’s the best person to tell his story.