Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
Rating: Pete’s: 2.5 out of 5 stars Indiana’s: 3 out of 5
Re-readability: We probably won’t be rereading this one.
From the jacket flap description, it seems like Lab Girl should be about how one woman fights to succeed in the scientific field. But it’s a lot more about how different life working in the field of scientific research can be from really any other career path. Hope Jahren carries on her research despite budget cuts, lack of materials, and administrative support. While the book doesn’t zero in on any one study she’s done, often with her assistant Bill, it gives a general view of why research is so necessary. And it definitely gives an interesting look at the world of plants!
Indiana: I think I walked away from this book a bit more satisfied than you did.
Pete: Yeah, the ending lacked a satisfying oomph. I was expecting a personal realization that Jahren came to, or a major discovery, and there wasn’t one.
Indiana: Right, this wasn’t a typical memoir format. Usually there is a distinct start, a problematic or challenging middle section, and then a triumphant end, or at least some sort of discovery. I didn’t quite understand what she had discovered at the end. There were plenty of mini-chapters where she discussed her work and I loved those sections. But I never got a definitive sense of the ways she contributed to the scientific community. Then again, maybe that was her point. Maybe she doesn’t always feel that there’s a definitive thing to point to that she’s discovered. She just created the next stepping stone in the plant world?
Pete: Well, neither of us are scientists, but maybe that’s just how it is in most scientific fields. But as reader, I wanted a big moment at the end, either for her career or for her personal life. I really loved the mini science chapters. I would read an entire book of her just talking about various types of plants and how they work. But I think she struggled with finding a balance between the science, her career, and her personal life.
Indiana: Which is a battle that anyone with a passion for their job fights on a daily basis. If you love what you do, than it can be tough to tear yourself away from it to go and do really anything else. I get that. Although, it was semi sad that she didn’t mention her family until pretty late in the book. I know her family wasn’t supposed to be the main focus of the book, but I enjoyed reading about them (so I selfishly wanted her to include a few more pages of her life with them).
Pete: And though we don’t see much of her family, we do see a lot of Bill, who is her assistant, co-worker, and best friend. Bill is extremely memorable, and very different from Hope—it’s clear that they’re “just friends” throughout, but I was rubbed the wrong way with how many times Jahren points out that there was absolutely never anything romantic between them. It just drew attention to the strangeness of their friendship.
Indiana: I didn’t entirely feel the same way. I don’t know if she needed to state it as much as she did, but I think it gave a clearer picture of the nature of their friendship. There were plenty of moments when things could have gone in a different direction, but they never did. It feels more like Bill is her brother or something. I like how their natures complement one another: he’s calm when she’s intense, and he’s intense when she’s calm.
Pete: They were an entertaining duo, but I sort of wish we had less exploration of their relationship and more emphasis on what they were studying and accomplishing. A lot of the time I had no idea what they were striving toward besides more funding (which is a constant struggle that they deal with, as do most scientists in America).
Indiana: And that part was so stressful to even read! I can’t imagine having a job where you’re not sure if you’ll have enough money to keep working in a few months. But that brings me back to the chapters on her work and on plants. For some reason, I’ve always been interested in learning about how plants work. So I loved the chapters where she seems to rattle on about pine trees or why eucalyptus smells so powerful to us. But I understand why they might not be for everyone.
Pete: Absolutely. I would have loved 30% more science in this book. Maybe she was afraid of scaring away readers—and a lot of other people we talked to said that they skipped those chapters, so maybe she was onto something. Now, one thing that really bothered me was her distaste for writing and the arts. She points out at one point that a scientist puts more emphasis on word choice than any writer, and then talks about how studying English in college felt like it wouldn’t amount to anything useful—that writing fiction isn’t “doing” anything, and she would rather do something. At the same time, she made sure to quote famous works of fiction and remind the reader that she knows her stuff when it comes to literature—but she’s way above it. Her job involves doing things.
Indiana: I get that. During the scenes when she’s working at the hospital throughout college and she’s constantly finding ways to tie in whatever book she had just read to her work, her narrative got a little exhausting. It seemed weirdly placed. Like she knew English majors would read this book someday and wanted to be a part of their club too. But, as we find out later on, the exhausting pace might have been due to her bipolar disorder. She also mentioned that she wasn’t sleeping for more than a few hours a night and had taken on a number of heavy courses for school. So I questioned my feelings about the scenes where she’s working in the hospital and trying to weave literature into whatever is going on during her shift.
Pete: The references were pretty heavy-handed, and since we know her opinion of the significance of literature, it was confusing. I did find it interesting just how little she talked about what it was like to be a woman working in science. It did come up, but she talked about it briefly and got it out of the way. I suppose she’s under no obligation to report on what it’s like to be a female scientist—this book is about her, not that.
Indiana: Agreed. I liked that she didn’t completely focus on it, but gave a realistic view of what it was like to try and have kids while working in the field, as well as the challenges that come with befriending people in the field. Overall, I enjoyed it and hope to hear about some of her other studies someday.
Pete: It was all right. It wasn’t what I was expecting, and I would have loved to read a lot more about her achievements and the general science of plants. But she does have a talent for explaining complex things in elegant and entertaining ways.
Indiana: Absolutely. Anyone else read this one? Let us know if you think we missed the mark or if you loved it in the comments below!