Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
(Memoir; Knopf, 2016)
Jahren harmonizes the story of her life as a geobotanist with the story of trees. Undaunted by the solitary nature of lab work, she discovers that a host of other challenges stand in her way, from a nationwide funding drought to deeply entrenched sexism to her own, more personal battles. Despite it all, she and her unlikely partner-in-science, Bill tackle success, failure, birth, death, resentment, forgiveness, family, and self.
Writer-Brain: 5/5 stars. I picked this book up because of the uncanny similarities between Jahren’s story and the main character in my WIP. It used to be tough distancing myself from “source material,” if you want to call it that, but lately I’ve had a better time of it, so I wasn’t worried about accidentally conflating my 1869 botanist with a real-life scientist from today. As I’d hoped, Lab Girl gave me a chance to be in the head of scientist for a while–and one who shares a few characteristics with my main character at that. I have a few new ideas, a few points of confirmation: really from the writer side of things, this inspired me as I hoped it would.
Editor-Brain: 5/5 stars. Jahren’s structure is not to be copied likely. Telling two stories at once–one foreign to the reader and one more familiar–was certainly a risk and I’m willing to guess not a small undertaking for Jahren or her editor(s). The result was cohesive and compelling, and I think most readers will find the back-and-forth smooth and interesting. It adds some pauses for the narrative, reasserts Jahren’s expertise, and emphasizes the narrative threads so essential in carrying us through a career’s worth of stories. This is not a one-size-fits-all kind of solution; not every story would flourish with this kind of structure, even when shepherded with great care.
Also of note, there are a few places where Jahren uses tense changes to jump forward in time. I felt a touch jolted, but likely less than through other means of time change. It just occurred to me that it always felt a bit like a time-lapse video, which somehow I now appreciate better than before.
**LIGHT SPOILERS IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH**
Reader-Brain: 5/5 stars. Jahren’s writing is phenomenal and engaging and engrossing. I would have said this even before I spent a few chapters in part 3 trying not to cry. Jahren shares her pregnancy experience and the details are so frustrating and so real and so unsurprising (making it all the more enraging) that I just couldn’t remain unmoved and impartial. Some aspects of her experience certainly resonated with me on a personal level and I am sure will speak to anyone who has experienced the confluence of having a job and being pregnant.
Beyond this, though, Jahren’s story is universal in so many ways. Read this if you want to learn about the experience of a female scientist. Read this if you have felt alone against the world–and if you’ve had the joy of finding a kindred spirit against the odds. Read this if you are looking for a different kind of story arc, one that is not Jungian and yet echoes deeply across time, space, and species.
Et cetera: I checked my copy of Lab Girl out of the Ames Free LIbrary in Easton, MA, and loved it too much to return it before I’d finished it, despite it being a week late. If the next person in line for the book is reading this: #sorrynotsorry. It’s worth it and you’ll know it.