Lab Girl.

Botanist Hope Jahren’s memoir Lab Girl, winner of the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for the best autobiographical work of 2016, is a wildly compelling, inspiring read, the story of a woman who has fought mental illness, institutional sexism, and the indifference of a country that would rather fund wars than basic science to become a successful researcher and professor. It’s full of observations on the lives of plants, processes largely beneath our awareness because plants aren’t sentient or, in most cases, particularly mobile. But more than anything else, Lab Girl is the story of Jahren’s unusual, decades-long friendship with a lab partner and co-conspirator named Bill, who threatens to overtake Jahren in her own life story.

Jahren grew up in a small town in southern Minnesota where most of the local economy revolved around the town’s hog slaughterhouse, the lone daughter of a scientist father and frustrated-scientist mother, and was drawn to science from an early age. She chronicles her meandering path to her current post at the University of Hawai’i by way of undergraduate work at the University of Minnesota (where she also worked in the hospital’s pharmacy, filling bags and running them to patient rooms) and graduate work at Georgia Tech and Johns Hopkins.

The heart of Jahren’s story, however, is this quixotic relationship she has with the itinerant Bill, whom she first encounters while they work at a research lab in California and then takes with her to Atlanta, Baltimore, and now Honolulu. Bill appears only in anecdotes and his dialogue revolves largely around a certain Anglo-Saxon gerund, but he comes across as a character right out of Inherent Vice – witty, gifted, cutting, loyal, poorly dressed, and a stoner. Jahren has some career ambition, driven in part by the sexism she meets at every stop – some overt, most just subtle enough to not get every one of those assholes hauled in front of HR – but also by lessons of her childhood. Bill, on the other hand, wants to be in the lab. He wants to work in the lab, yes, but also to inhabit the lab, which he actually does at a few points over the course of their shared history. His limited personal needs become fodder for inadvertent humor, such as the time he cuts most of his shaggy hair off … and stores it in the trunk of a nearby tree so he can go visit it. Every time Bill shows up on the page, the book goes from good to great.

Jahren manages to wrest the spotlight back from Bill a few times, especially in her descriptions of her bipolar disorder, which she depicts as occasionally useful for her work but also disastrous for her life and a major problem for the first 26 weeks of her one pregnancy. (I didn’t get the sense she intends for there to be a second.) Bipolar disorder, often misnamed as manic-depressive disorder, is still a widely misunderstood mental illness, even as we creep toward greater societal acceptance of the most common diseases like depression, anxiety, and panic disorder. Jahren’s story doesn’t revolved around her illness, but it is a shining example of how much someone can achieve in spite of that obstacle.

Lab Girl won as an autobiography, and it is much more that than it is a science book. Jahren explains her love of plants (and soil – you can’t separate the two) with concise lessons on topics like leaf structure, plant sex (fertilization), or how plants survive in the desert. She also takes us to some widely varying settings and depicts them with evocative, bright language, from the greenery of Ireland to the barren terrain of a nearly plantless Arctic island north of Nunavut. As someone who reads and enjoys popular science books, I was hoping for a bit more of this, and given the book’s length (under 300 pages), there was certainly room for that. For one important example, Jahren talks at length about the scarcity of funds for basic science research like hers – research that won’t help us in war or directly lead to a cure or a product – but climate change gets the drive-by treatment in the last two chapters. In an era when one of our two political parties has embraced climate change denial, and has recruited swaths of the religious right to join them in this delusion, we need more voices like Jahren to speak out about the truth.

I sell, share, or donate a lot of the books I acquire, because if I stored them all, I’d need a second room just to shelve them. (Also, books are heavy, and I’ve made two cross-country moves in the last seven years.) I’m going to keep Lab Girl for a few years; my daughter is eleven and enjoys science, so once she’s ready for the book’s vocabulary, she’ll devour it.

Next up: Fritz Lieber’s Hugo-winning novel The Wanderer, which is just $3.82 for the Kindle.

Speak Your Mind

*