Any woman who opens her book with the line “There is nothing in the world more perfect than a slide rule” already has my heart. Hope Jahren could have also begun with this, a few pages later: “When I was five I came to understand that I was not a boy.” After that, I found “My laboratory is like a church because it is where I figure out what I believe.” At that point, I had to stop marking great first sentences, because they were everywhere: “I didn’t so much meet Bill. It was more like I identified him.”
“Lab Girl” is the story of a girl who becomes a scientist. It’s also the story of a career and the endless struggles over funding, recognition and politics that get in the way. It’s the story of the plants and soil she studies. But — and this is the weirdest, coolest part about this book — it is really the story of two lab partners and their uncommon bond.
Hope and Bill meet on a soil taxonomy field trip, where students are told to dig holes and document what they find. Bill moves away from the group to dig his own series of holes. When Hope asks him if he’s off by himself looking for gold, he answers: “No. I just like to dig. I used to live in a hole.”
This is not going to be any ordinary friendship.
The first thing I want to say about the story of Hope and Bill is that I had a sense, right from the beginning, that she was going to let us into this peculiar, inscrutable, enduring association with both honesty and compassion, which is to say she would be writing about a relationship that is ongoing, with the permission of the other party. This is not as easy as it sounds. It’s hard to tell the truth about another person in their presence. She gives him privacy when it’s called for — we learn only the vaguest outlines of his life outside of work (including the particulars about that hole he once lived in) — but otherwise, she lets us walk right in.
When two misfits meet, they tend to connect at a deep, unspoken, lizard-brain level that cannot be easily explained to anyone else. The fact that she even tried — much less succeeded so brilliantly — to put their lab-partners-for-life arrangement on paper is one of the most impressive feats in this extraordinary book.
After that first field trip, Jahren talks her boss into hiring Bill on the grounds that he’s the smartest one in the class. Over the years, she strings together grant funding to keep him employed in her laboratory, even when he’s paid so little that he sleeps under his desk. At times they’re roommates. For a while he lives in his car.
Bill stays loyal to her during her worst times, including a spell of anxiety that leads him, in an uncharacteristically intimate moment, to ask her to see a doctor and get some Prozac. When she argues that she doesn’t need it, he says: “Then don’t take it. Give it to the homeless guy who lives in your laboratory.” By the time Jahren marries “the strongest and kindest man I had ever met,” a mathematician named Clint, and moves with him to Hawaii for a university job, it seems entirely reasonable for her to insist that the university also offer permanent employment to Bill, with a guaranteed salary. He’s family, too. He goes where she goes.
Oh, and about that Prozac. Jahren, in the midst of her sparkling observations about what plants do (transpiration, strangulation, hibernation) and her accounts of junk-food-fueled research trips through Ireland, Alaska and the Georgia swamps, lets slip a little about what it’s like to live with anxiety and manic depression. It comes up sporadically and unexpectedly, the way these things do in real life. It bursts through.
When she gets pregnant and has to stop taking the medications that have more or less kept her together up to this point in the narrative, all hell breaks loose, in her life and on the page. I like to make a lot of notes in the margins of the books I’m reviewing, and when I reached the chapter on her pregnancy, labor and birth, all I could do was scrawl “DAMN” at the top and dog-ear all 20 pages. Stephen King has never frightened me that much.
Mostly, though, this book is delightfully, wickedly funny. I was constantly surprised by the literary tricks this first-time memoirist manages to pull off. In a chapter about a college job at a hospital pharmacy, she mentions offhandedly that her English term paper would explore the uses of the word “heart” within “David Copperfield.” For the rest of the chapter, lines from Dickens drop in when you least expect them. When her chain-smoking boss Lydia drives her home after a late shift, on the grounds that “asshole rapists” made it unsafe to walk, it goes like this:
“Lydia never drove off until she saw you go inside and flash the porch light on and off. ‘Blink it more than once if somebody needs their balls ripped off,’ she instructed us maternally. She did not replace my mother; no one could do that; but she came into a vacancy in my heart, which closed upon her, I remembered from chapter four, and smiled to myself.”
With “Lab Girl,” Jahren has taken the form of the memoir and done something remarkable with it. She’s made the experience of reading the book mimic her own lived experience in a way that few writers are capable of.
She swerves from observations about plant life (“A cactus doesn’t live in the desert because it likes the desert; it lives there because the desert hasn’t killed it yet”) to a report from the interior of her tortured brain (“Full-blown mania lets you see the other side of death”) to adventures on the road with Bill (“ ‘Do you really think this is illegal?’ I asked Bill over the CB radio.”) — and somehow, it all works, because the structure and the language follow the story.
That harrowing account of childbirth is rendered in vivid and terrifying Technicolor because it was vivid and terrifying. Descriptions of her research projects are precise and detailed and engrossing because that’s what research is like. Brief observations on plant life are more meditative and reflective, because, well, they’re about plants.
The same is true for Jahren’s way of talking about the crap she puts up with as a woman in a male-dominated profession. Persistent gender bias and harassment are given their due alongside everything else, because that’s exactly how she has to deal with them. They’re facts, like gravity or rainfall. A description of her late-night hours in the lab includes an almost offhanded paragraph about the reason she works in the middle of the night: A postdoc fellow with an anger-management problem tends to be “particularly menacing toward the odd female who stumbled into his orbit.” She can work alongside him during the day, when there are more people around, or she can go in late at night, when he normally doesn’t work, and risk facing him alone if he does happen to drop by. She chooses the latter and goes to work with a three-quarter-inch ratcheting wrench in her back pocket for protection. But then, in the next paragraph, she’s coating a glass sample slide in epoxy, because this is how it goes for women in an environment like that: We figure out how to survive, then we get back to work.
It’s a powerful and disarming way to tell a story, and I admire the craft behind it. Mostly, though, I love this book for its honesty, its hilarity and its brilliant sharp edges. Jahren has some serious literary chops to go along with all that science she gets up to. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
By Hope Jahren
Knopf. 290 pp. $26.95