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).
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).
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.