Here is a book I checked out on the recommendation of a few-years-old Best Books of the Year list, the others on the list having appealed to me very little (or else I already read them). It is about a bunch of scientists working at a lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to discover cures for cancer by trying different things on rats. One researcher, Cliff, begins to have dramatic results with his experiments, and the lab explodes with excitement and papers and research grants. Gradually his colleague and ex-girlfriend, Robin, begins to believe that his results are fraudulent; and her accusation spirals into a massive controversy that changes the lab forever.
I like this book because although the set-up would make it seem like a battle between Cliff and Robin, the true winner in all this is SCIENCE. I won’t say more because I don’t want to ruin the end for those people who believe, contrary to the findings of SCIENCE, that ends are ruinable. I will just say that the last scene of the book made me very happy while also staying true to everything that had led up to it. The book is about devotion to science and how it can be sullied or diluted, and it was great to have the book conclude that the characters care about science first and most.
Allegra Goodman has a keen, observant eye for human interaction and subtext. Occasionally this got too text-y — I am smart and could have deduced what wasn’t being said from what was — but overall she did a great job of describing the multitudinous undercurrents that exist between these scientists in this lab. The action of the book is small, but the book feels large; there is more at stake than just this one set of experiments in this one lab. Unfortunately I can’t quote much from the book to depict this, as it depends heavily on context for its impact, so you will just have to trust me that Goodman is good at teasing out the complicated motives and emotions of her characters.
I could have done with — but this is a personal preference and not Allegra Goodman’s responsibility — more exploration of the gender issues at play here. This doesn’t go unmentioned, the question of women in science and the pressures there and stereotype threat and the additional trope of the Bitter Ex-Girlfriend and how that weighs into people’s reactions to Robin. I just think it’s an interesting thing, and it could have been explored more. Goodman mostly leaves it alone, which I think it’s fine, since women doing science is unremarkable and there’s no need to make it remarkable. I just like stories that talk about gender dynamics.
Oh, but there was this one thing thrown casually in there, and I’m going to gripe about it because I am loyal. One of the two people who runs the lab has a wife who’s working on a book about invalids, and her book is mentioned a few times in passing. And in one of these passing mentions there’s this casual drive-by insinuation that Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s illness was psychosomatic. Whoa whoa WHOA, Allegra Goodman. Just because you do not know what she had doesn’t mean she had nothing.
So we’re in a fight now.
Even though I liked (-not-loved) her book. Even though the true winner was SCIENCE, and I too want science to win.
(We’re not really in a fight. Only a little bit.)