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Reviews of The Lost Family by Libby Copeland

The Lost Family

How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are

by Libby Copeland

The Lost Family by Libby Copeland X
The Lost Family by Libby Copeland
  • Critics' Opinion:

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  • First Published:
    Mar 2020, 304 pages

    Mar 2021, 304 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Elisabeth Herschbach
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About this Book

Book Summary

A deeply reported look at the rise of home genetic testing and the seismic shock it has had on individual lives.

You swab your cheek or spit into a vial, then send it away to a lab somewhere. Weeks later you get a report that might tell you where your ancestors came from or if you carry certain genetic risks. Or the report could reveal a long-buried family secret and upend your entire sense of identity. Soon a lark becomes an obsession, an incessant desire to find answers to questions at the core of your being, like "Who am I?" and "Where did I come from?" Welcome to the age of home genetic testing.
In The Lost Family, journalist Libby Copeland investigates what happens when we embark on a vast social experiment with little understanding of the ramifications. Copeland explores the culture of genealogy buffs, the science of DNA, and the business of companies like Ancestry and 23andMe, all while tracing the story of one woman, her unusual results, and a relentless methodical drive for answers that becomes a thoroughly modern genetic detective story.
The Lost Family delves into the many lives that have been irrevocably changed by home DNA tests—a technology that represents the end of family secrets. There are the adoptees who've used the tests to find their birth parents; donor-conceived adults who suddenly discover they have more than fifty siblings; hundreds of thousands of Americans who discover their fathers aren't biologically related to them, a phenomenon so common it is known as a "non-paternity event"; and individuals who are left to grapple with their conceptions of race and ethnicity when their true ancestral histories are discovered. Throughout these accounts, Copeland explores the impulse toward genetic essentialism and raises the question of how much our genes should get to tell us about who we are. With more than thirty million people having undergone home DNA testing, the answer to that question is more important than ever.
Gripping and masterfully told, The Lost Family is a spectacular book on a big, timely subject.


This is the story of a woman named Alice, but it is also the story of a man named Jason, and a woman named Jacqui, and a whole host of people you haven't yet met but who could be you. This is about the countless people who have seen ads for at-home DNA tests, and — eager to learn about their ancestral heritage, perhaps — decided those tests looked like fun, and got more than they expected. It could be that there's a fundamental fact about you, or about your family's past, that you don't yet know, and that will change the way you think about truth and family and who you are. The only thing standing between you and the discovery of this story is that DNA test.

If the hundreds of Americans I've spoken with are any guide, before you take such a test, you're unlikely to think there's any such disruptive fact in your family history. Even if you know there's a statistical possibility that you'll discover something surprising, you're unlikely to expect the statistics will...

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How much power do our genes have to shape who we are? And as the genetic databases of ancestry companies grow larger and larger, what unforeseen implications might this have for our private lives? Well-researched and thoroughly enjoyable to read, The Lost Family is a fascinating look at these and other issues surrounding the rise of commercial DNA testing. With clear and accessible explanations of the relevant science, Copeland describes the basics of gene sequencing and delves into topics including, among others, the business practices of industry behemoths such as Ancestry and 23andMe, the pitfalls of relying on commercial DNA tests for medical information and the hazards of buying into an oversimplified genetic essentialism that treats genes as destiny...continued

Full Review (689 words).

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(Reviewed by Elisabeth Herschbach).

Media Reviews

New York Times
Copeland’s balanced treatment of [DNA testing] allows readers to reach their own conclusions and shows them many of the factors they might consider as they do. The Lost Family intersperses expository sections with an intermittent narrative of the step-by-step journey of Alice Collins Plebuch, a woman who is thrown for a loop when AncestryDNA results contradict her impression that her forebears were Irish, English and Scottish. Readers might find the unfurling of Plebuch’s story a bit too attenuated, but her eventual discovery illustrates the hidden history that genetic testing can uncover.

Washington Post
The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are serves as an entertaining and impressively comprehensive field guide to the rapidly evolving world of genetic testing. Strap on your seat belt, because this is not your gray-haired father’s harmless hobby. At times it reads like an Agatha Christie mystery with twists and red herrings. But it is also a philosophy book and an ethics treatise, with a touch of true crime. It wrestles with some of the biggest questions in life: Who are we? What is family? Are we defined by nature, nurture or both?
Copeland takes readers inside America’s first DNA testing lab dedicated to genealogy, to Salt Lake City’s Family History Library—the largest genealogical research facility in the world—and into the living rooms of dozens of people whose lives have been turned upside down due to the results of a recreational DNA test. It is at once a hard look at the forces behind a historical mass reckoning that is happening all across America, and an intimate portrait of the people living it.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
[F]ascinating...impeccably researched...Up-to-the-minute science meets the philosophy of identity in a poignant, engaging debut book.

Library Journal
Highly recommended for popular science and memoir fans, as well as readers with an interest in genealogy.

Author Blurb Dani Shapiro, New York Times bestselling author of Inheritance
So many families have been touched—and will continue to be touched—by the secrets unearthed by home genetic testing. We are in an epidemic with few signposts, little to guide us as we contend with the unintended consequences brought upon us by scientific advancement. The Lost Family is an urgently necessary, powerful book that addresses one of the most complex social and bioethical issues of our time.

Author Blurb Monica Hesse, author of American Fire and Girl in the Blue Coat
A riveting mystery combined with a beautiful meditation on family and identity. I read it in one sitting and immediately preordered copies for everyone I'm related to, both by blood and by love.

Author Blurb Razib Khan, The Insitome Institute
A compellingly readable narrative that takes us down the rabbit hole of modern personal genomics. Libby Copeland brings a gripping story from the front lines of genealogy and genomics.

Author Blurb Tana French, New York Times bestselling author of the Dublin Murder Squad series and The Witch Elm
The Lost Family is a fascinating exploration of the mysteries ignited by DNA genealogy testing—from the intensely personal and concrete to the existential and unsolvable. In the world Copeland's 'seekers' are exploring, 'Who am I?' becomes a mystery more intricate and more crucial than any novel's 'Whodunit?' Copeland deftly weaves together individual stories, technical explanations and sociological discussion to make a book that's both gripping and deeply thought-provoking.

Reader Reviews


Food for thought
I received an ARC of this title from the publisher. This was fascinating. In some sections, it did get a bit bogged down in the technical minutiae of DNA testing and genetics but thankfully those areas were short and then returned to the main human ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

DNA Testing and Law Enforcement

Evidence room storage for the Golden State Killer case In The Lost Family, Libby Copeland examines some of the complex issues surrounding commercial DNA testing, including concerns about privacy and consent. To what extent should we be comfortable entrusting our DNA to powerful corporations that can take our most intimate information—our genetic data—and put it to uses we aren't even aware of and often can't control?

From the advent of consumer DNA testing, privacy experts have warned that the seemingly simple act of sending in a saliva sample or a cheek swab for genetic analysis can set off a chain of unintended consequences. A powerful reminder of such unforeseen applications came in April 2018, when authorities announced the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, alleged to be ...

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