- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 18, 2006


By Allegra Goodman,

Dial Press, $24.95, 344 pages


This is a wonderful novel for at least three reasons. First of all, it disproves the base canard that Bachelor of Arts types are totally ignorant of the world inhabited by Bachelor of Science types. Way back in the middle of the last century, college students debated — okay, some college students debated — the central argument of C. P. Snow’s famous essay “The Two Cultures” in which he claimed that while scientists were at least familiar with, for example, a work of Shakespeare, literary types were woefully ignorant of basic scientific principles.

How many English majors, he and his disciples asked, could name the Second Law of Thermodynamics? (Quick, you on the couch, name the First.) That’s why, scolded the scientists, there are so few good novels about science, except of course those by Snow himself. Well, this is a good novel and it is definitely about science.

Secondly, “Intuition” is an exception to another rule, the one that says American novels seldom deal with work, the actual details of what the characters do to put bread on the table, keep body and soul together, (add your own cliche).

F. Scott Fitzgerald provides no specifics as to how Jay Gatsby got so filthy rich, nor did Tom Wolfe, several generations later, in “Bonfire of the Vanities,” explain how his master-of-the-universe protagonist became so filthy rich, and while John Updike had the middle-aged Rabbit Angstrom working as a Toyota dealer in “Rabbit at Rest,” we rarely saw him in action.

Not true of Allegra Goodman. She takes us right down there into the nitty-gritty quotidian stuff that lab rats — the human kind — do day after day after day while conducting experiments they hope will eventually provide something of value for the rest of humankind (and if they also make them rich and famous, so much the better).

And to Ms. Goodman’s immense credit, she does it without losing the reader’s interest. In fact, if anything it increases it.

The third thing she does so well is to make you think about the issues involved. We all know that politicians lie (even presidents), and so do high level CEOs, not to mention lawyers and writers of memoirs, and maybe even mothers, but we’d like to think — at least I would — that scientists tell the truth, recent news from the Far East notwithstanding. Well, in this book, there’s one scientist who may not be, which provides the central conflict of this very good novel by this very good writer whose work keeps getting better and better.

There are four big parts in this drama, or, if you wish, two major pairs. At the top, there are Sandy Glass and Marion Mendelssohn, co-directors of the Philpott Institute, situated both literally and figuratively in the shadow of Harvard, where a dedicated group of post-doctoral scientists (annoying called “postdocs” throughout the novel) are doing cancer research.

Two of those postdocs, Cliff Bannaker and Robin Decker, plus a small handful of others, are lab-level equals, that is until Cliff’s research suddenly produces startlingly positive results that could have major scientific, life-saving value. But does it, really? Could there be a flaw in this seeming breakthrough?

Master of the Medical Universe Dr. Sandy Glass, an oncologist with a hugely successful practice, doesn’t think so. In fact he wants to run with it, right into the pages of the most prestigious scientific journal in the nation, and from there into the arms of a huge NIH grant.

Mendelssohn, the truer scientist, lets Sandy Glass’s enthusiasm and forcefulness overcome her normal cautious pace, and when the outside world gets wind of the possibility that the Philpott may have discovered a cure for cancer, and even People magazine does a feature story, they appear to be on top of the scientific world.

At that point, Robin Decker, who has broken off her romance with the younger Cliff Bannaker, feels her misgivings turning into real doubts. Ms. Goodman skillfully suggests that it may be professional jealousy, or the banked fury of a woman scorned, or both, but as the tale unfolds it becomes clear that something is wrong with the experiment and therefore with its bright and shining conclusions.

Finally, Robin takes her suspicions to the top, Drs. Glass and Mendelssohn, but not only do they not believe her, they push her out the door.

Robin’s scientist friends are little help: “[They] knew everything, but they did not understand her position. She had no money, no savings, scarcely any way to make her rent and keep her apartment. She had no standing in the scientific world, not even a proper affiliation anymore. She had only her discovery, her sole piece of intellectual property, the gap between Cliff’s raw data and his published work. This was not jealousy or falling out of love. This was knowledge of Cliff and what he’d done.”

Up to that point in the novel, everything seemed perfectly plausible (to a liberal arts type), but when the action moved to a larger stage, a very public hearing before a Congressional oversight body, at times the action took on a soap-opera quality.

I won’t spoil the book for you by revealing the outcome of Robin’s complaint, but by the end of the novel the landscape is very different, and very differently populated. I didn’t end up caring all that much for the characters, as characters, but I was definitely caught up in the plausibility of what happened, and I certainly feel as if I know what a “postdoc lab rat” does at work each day (and on Sundays and holidays, too).

Perhaps a scientist would disagree, and I hope to discuss the book with one as soon as possible, but if that isn’t a compliment to the author, I don’t know an ass from an autoclave.

This is the fifth work of fiction, and third novel, by a talented semi-young (Harvard, ‘89) writer who has concentrated on Jewish themes in her previous work, but now widens her focus, much like Philip Roth did at a similar point in his career. Allegra Goodman is no longer a “writer to watch.” She’s here, and the novel-reading public is all the better for it.

John Greenya is a Washington writer and the author of “Silent Justice: The Clarence Thomas Story.”

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