Book review: LAB GIRL by Hope Jahren

ScienceThrillers.com book review of Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

 

Publication date: April 2016
Category: Science memoir

Summary (from the publisher):

An illuminating debut memoir of a woman in science; a moving portrait of a longtime friendship; and a stunningly fresh look at plants that will forever change how you see the natural world

Acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren has built three laboratories in which she’s studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Her first book is a revelatory treatise on plant life—but it is also so much more.

Lab Girl
is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren’s remarkable stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done “with both the heart and the hands”; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work.

Yet at the core of this book is the story of a relationship Jahren forged with a brilliant, wounded man named Bill, who becomes her lab partner and best friend. Their sometimes rogue adventures in science take them from the Midwest across the United States and back again, over the Atlantic to the ever-light skies of the North Pole and to tropical Hawaii, where she and her lab currently make their home.

ScienceThrillers review:

Lab Girl had a well-financed launch by the publisher (loads of “buzz”), and as soon as I heard about it, I knew I had to read it. The scientist-author of this memoir, Hope Jahren, is a woman about my age, who also grew up in rural southern Minnesota. I was eager to read her story about a life in science.

What did I think of Lab Girl?

I think it’s two different books inside a single cover. One of the books was mind-blowingly beautiful. The other, not so much.

What makes this book definitely worth reading are the chapters that are essentially free-standing essays about plant science. As others reviewers have noted, read these and you will never look at trees the same way again. Jahren’s appreciation of the plant world is as rich and deep as Minnesota soil. She will bring you into a tree’s point of view, create drama in a tree’s slowly unfolding life story, show you the complexity you cannot see with your eyes. I absolutely savored each one of these literate, scientific interludes in the book. Jahren artfully constructs each essay as a kind of link or metaphor for the surrounding chapters–plant science as life story. And it works!

Here are some openings from these chapters to give you a flavor:

No risk is more terrifying than that taken by the first root. A lucky root will eventually find water, but its first job is to anchor–to anchor an embryo and forever end its mobile phase, however passive that mobility was.

The American South is a plant’s idea of Eden. Summers are hot, but who cares, because the rain is generous and the sunshine predictable…The heavy humidity that chokes us is like nectar to a plant; it allows it to relax and open its pores, and to drink in the atmosphere, confident that evaporation will not interfere.

The life of a deciduous tree is ruled by its annual budget.

These brief, glittering gems of science writing alternate with the “memoir” part of this book. Here’s the problem with reviewing a memoir: I find it impossible to separate the literary merits of the writing from the personality of the subject. In Lab Girl, the writing is unquestionably of high quality and the stories are interesting. Which is why I read the whole book, cover to cover, even though I felt a dislike for the author herself. Jahren rightfully complains about some aspects of a life in science, specifically, the endless, soul-sucking burden of trying to get funding for your lab. Another of her refrains felt to me more like a chip on her shoulder: that she was constantly disrespected because she was a woman. How “true” was her perception? I can’t say. But when it was revealed that the author suffers from severe bipolar disorder, I felt justified in taking some of her attitude with a grain of salt.

The memoir sections are obviously about events in Jahren’s life and scientific career. Most of them revolve around an intense relationship she has with an unusual misfit of a man named Bill. The relationship defies categorization; at times it resembles mother-son; at others, brother-sister. Book clubs should have a field day discussing it.

In summary, this critically acclaimed science memoir is beautifully written throughout. I highly recommend it for the essay chapters. If you read the memoir chapters and are turned off by the narrator, feel free to skip those parts.

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