Apr 22

Book Review: Lab Girl

Lab GirlLab Girl by Hope Jahren

This is a memoir of a woman who, like me, wanted to be a scientist when she grew up. Unlike me, she actually made it happen. Jahren gives an insider’s view of the life of a scientist that I’d never seen. I never had any idea, for example, how much research scientists preoccupy themselves with funding and money, or how hard-up even the sciences are for dollars. That actually depressed me a little, and added another thing to “things I will fund if/when I ever become stupidly wealthy.”
Jahren talks about her childhood, with her scientist father and her mother who would certainly have also been one had she not been born a woman. She touches on her parents in the beginning, and later she talks about her relationship with her own son, but the family issues take a back seat to the science, and to her relationship with her long-term friend and research partner Bill.

The stories about Bill are some of the best parts of this book. Bill is a character. He made his own shovel. He hates haircuts, and shaves his own hair, but then stores the cut off hair in a tree because he can’t bear to part with it. He spends a lot of time living out of his car. Jahren herself isn’t the most normal/neurotypical person, and the two of them seem like kooky eccentrics who nevertheless are harder working and smarter than most of us. In the personal-revelation sections she also talked about her struggles with manic-depressive disorder, but it’s thrown in as a side fact, not the guiding fact of her life.

Funny and poignant anecdotes about field trips or research labs and other parts of her life as a scientist are alternated with information about trees and plants. I love trees and botany, and really appreciated that I learned a lot about how trees communicate, for example, or that hackberry seeds are filled with opal, or that trees need magnesium to survive. Because it’s a fun memoir that talks about science (science!) and plants (plants!) I would have given it four or five stars, which is a big deal for me because I’m chintzy with stars.

My main problems with my enjoyment of this book were twofold. One, I listened to this as an audiobook (as I do most books these days). It was read by the author, who has a lugubrious voice. Her voice was so depressed-sounding that at times she sounded like she was about to break into tears. Some of this happened at appropriate places, and some just hinted at a deeper story that the author didn’t get into, such as whose funeral she was attending, or why she never felt her mother loved her. I had to speed it up to 1.40 just to keep from getting depressed.

The second is that the transitions between sections weren’t as smooth as they could have been, leaving me confused as to what point in her life she was at. She spends a lot of time talking about being poor, and about how they were almost out of money, and they had to do something about it, (A) but by the end of the book they’re living in Hawaii and gallivanting off to Ireland for fun (C). Something happened between A and C and I’m analytical enough to be bothered by B’s omission. If you set up that something is a crisis, I want it to be resolved.

Still, I did like it. I liked that it was about plants, I liked that it was about science, and I liked Jahren’s obvious love of language and quotes from Dickens.

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