Book review: Intuition by Allegra Goodman

Intuition by Allegra Goodman
Many, if not all, novels I’ve read about science fall into the trap of exaggeration – most typically the scientists themselves are deranged or the discoveries they (attempt to) make are earth-shattering (sometimes literally! Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg being one example). Rarely is the reality presented in as realistic and yet compelling manner as is done in this excellent novel. Science, in this case cancer biology research, is laid out in all its boring, frustrating detail, in which three years’ effort can result in an incremental advance – if you are lucky.
Cliff and Robin, two postdocs (postdoctoral researchers) in a small institute on the doorstep of the infinitely more prestigious and rich Harvard University, work insanely long hours at their repetitive tasks as well as having a relationship. Robin is the senior, and is jealous when Cliff’s experiments injecting cancerous mice with a virus result in the disappearance of the tumours. Robin is moved off her fruitless project by Marion, the lab chief, and told to assist Cliff. She discovers what she believes to be evidence that Cliff has not recorded all his data in his lab notebook; in other words, his results (now to be published in the prestigious journal Nature) are selective, and hence don’t stand up. Robin attempts to engage Marion and her co-chief, the charismatic medical doctor Sandy, in her concern but although a private internal enquiry is held, Robin’s worries are dismissed and she herself feels unable to continue working in the lab.
As well as the story of what happens next, and how a simple concern can get blown out of all proportion and misused by those with very different agendas, Intuition is a portrait of Marion’s and Sandy’s families; how their spouses and children live with such committed and driven people, and how the events set in chain by Robin affect them all. The novel also describes the mundane yet intensely competitive daily lab routine of the postdocs and technicians, drawing the reader in to the personal lives of these individuals as well as observing how they react to the climate of suspicion that prevails in the aftermath of Cliff’s apparent breakthrough.
Intuition is an utterly authentic book: several of the cases and personalities described in it are real (though names have been changed), and are depicted with confidence. By providing the perspectives of most of the main characters, most particularly Robin, Cliff and Marion, as well as Sandy’s daughter Kate, we can see that there are no obvious villains or heroes – nobody is too sympathetic, and nobody is too black. Just like real life, in fact. I highly recommend this book both as a compelling depiction of life at the cutting edge of modern biology research, and as an absorbing, well-constructed novel.

I purchased the Kindle edition of this book (Jan 2010; novel first published in print form in the USA by the Dial Press in 2006, and in the UK by Atlantic in 2009).

Author’s website.

Review of the book at The New York Times (though the “real case” identified in the review is only one of many real-life scientific dramas on which events in the book are based).

Other reviews of the book are at LabLit (an excellent website for those interested in science-in-fiction); The Observer; and The Guardian.

In the tradition of some blurb writers, I could make a suggestion that if you enjoyed this novel and want to read another good book about the scientific life, you might like to try Experimental Heart by Jennifer Rohn (Editor of Lab Lit). My review of her novel is here.

13 thoughts on “Book review: Intuition by Allegra Goodman

  1. Maxine – This premise strikes quite a chord with me, although my field is not natural science. What a fascinating plot, and your review of the novel is superb (as though I’d expect anything else from you 🙂 ). Thanks for sharing this, although I must say I am not happy about what’s happening to my TBR!! 😉

  2. Thanks, Margot 😉 It really is a very good book, I do recommend it esp to you with your academic persona/interests. It was very quick to read – it is a public holiday here, so I started it in the morning and had finished it by lunchtime!

  3. I don´t think I have read anything about science since Eclipse – a wonderful debut, recommended by you, and also one that shows some of the thankless toil. So perhaps I´d better add this one to the list also 🙂

  4. This is a great book review. Rarely are good novels written focused on science, and this is definitely a must-read. Will add it to the now chaotic TBR list, as there is such much on it, due to recommendations such as this one.

  5. Although my background is not in science I find that my own field – technology – often suffers from the same poor/unrealistic depiction as you describe (esp the exaggeration). Perhaps all things are equally badly depicted in fiction but you only know it when you’re familiar with the subject in the real world 🙂

    This sounds like a good read, one I will look out for in my new search for some non-crime works. You’ve reminded me that I read this author’s first book, called Kaaterskill Falls some years ago and enjoyed it – about some orthodox Jewish families living in New York state and trying to make their religious and secular lives rub along together.

  6. Thanks for the comments, Dorte, Kathy and Bernadette. Thanks also Bernadette for the opinion of another of Allegra G’s books – I had wondered whether to read any of them (though neither crime fiction nor about science!).

  7. No Maxine Kaaterskill Falls is neither – I probably picked it up due to my curiosity about things religious I think – was just a tale of how the different families handled their circumstances (I can’t remember too much else about it unfortunately – just that I enjoyed it) (wish I’d had a book blog my whole life)

  8. She’s just published a new book – I read some US reviews recently – so I may check that one out too (not that interested in religious topics though if they are used as a device to provide an insight into interpersonal or family tensions the result can be compelling).

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