Friday, November 7, 2008

Lab Life

If there was one area of study that never interested me when I was in college it was science. I took the absolute minimum (Chemistry 101) and muddled through it. I could never understand how my Lab Rat friends in their white coats could enjoy spending hours peering into microscopes. On the other hand, I love stories that give me a peek into a world I know nothing about. So would I enjoy a novel that took place in a research laboratory? I've enjoyed Allegra Goodman's short stories, so I decided to give it a try.

Intuition takes place in the fictional Philpott Institute in Cambridge in the mid 80's. We are quickly introduced to the large cast of characters – the post doc researchers struggling to make the discovery that will lead to a breakthrough in cancer treatment, and the lab directors Sandy and Marion, whose disparate personalities mesh to form solid leadership for the group. Sandy is a publicity-loving oncologist who wants the money and prestige that a new discovery will bring, and Marion is the meticulous PhD perfectionist who loves science for its own sake. When Cliff, a hardworking but somewhat unreliable researcher, claims that his virus R-7 is shrinking tumors in mice, the repercussions are felt by everyone at Philpott. And when his ex-girlfriend and fellow researcher Robin casts doubt on the accuracy of his results, the plot is set in motion. What follows is a page-turner of a story that sets the characters spinning in different directions.

Goodman's descriptions of the inner workings of a research lab, which I feared would be dry and clinical, were fascinating. And the exposure of the politics that are inevitably mixed with pure science was fascinating. But what was even more intriguing was her description of how a seed of doubt, once planted, is fed by the complex motives and loyalties of all the characters. Each action and reaction seems logical in itself, but they lead out of the lab and into NIH and even the halls of Congress. Though almost all the main characters are scientists, they are plagued with the universal emotions of jealousy, self-doubt, pride. Goodman doesn't give us heroes or villains, so my sympathies kept switching as events unfolded. Do I accept Cliff's intuition which led to his discovery, or is Robin's intuition correct that he manipulated his results? Like a good thriller, it kept me curious all the way to the end. So don't be put off by the clinical setting – this book will keep you interested even if you've always hated science.

No comments:

Post a Comment