Book review ‘Lab Girl’ by Hope Jahren

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August 7, 2017
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‘Lab Girl,’ by Hope Jahren, Vintage, paperback-2017, 282 pages.

One might imagine that no one really needs an autobiography from a bipolar plant geobiologist: one would be mistaken. Hope Jahren’s memoir begins in her father’s lab and continues with a stoic walk in small town Minnesota. As her foot hits the icy pavement, a world appears. With each step, the town, a loving yet emotionally stifled family, Scandinavian paradigms, her past, and the portent of the future appear in multidimensional authenticity. The world she builds is tangible, funny, and troublesome. She writes about fallen leaves: “These brave trees lay all their earthly treasures on the soil, where moth and rust doth immediately corrupt. They know better than all the saints and martyrs put together exactly how to store next year’s treasure in Heaven, where the heart shall be also.” She shares difficult details about dysfunctional head-banging, rejection, snotty crying, and failures that lead to breakthroughs. She writes of poverty, family, love, victory, and plants. Her stories of plant wonders always do double duty as metaphors for humanity.

This is not a book written for scientists. She writes several papers a year for them. This story is highly accessible. Readers vicariously experience matrixes of plant life that present mystery, challenge, and a poetic beauty–both in the lab and in the field. She describes a Minnesota corn field in summer: “At its peak, sweet corn grows a whole inch every single day, and as the layers of husk shift slightly to accommodate this expansion, you can hear it as a low continuous rustle if you stand inside the rows of a cornfield on a perfectly still August day.”

Her trajectory toward becoming a respected scientist often seems blocked, impeded by perceptions about women in academic science and by the ever shrinking lack of funding. It’s scary. The conflict is novelistic. Her love for beautiful intricacies of the plant world evoke lyrical prose that present plant science as compelling exoticism. She shares the visceral connection to findings that feel spiritual as her science reveals truth. This scientist who seeks revelation in the lab and field also brings that value to storytelling. Jaren’s mother nurtured love for literature and writing and that connection serves every sentence in this scientist’s coming-of-age story which ultimately inspires the reader to follow passions over comfort and convention.

Lab Girl’s chapters form a general chronologic advancement, yet chronology is not king in this prose. Meaning rules. Each chapter might serve as a stand-alone essay—each constructing insight and transcendence about the value of science and of people who are estranged from social norms: people with deformity, mental illness, weird social skills, and gender obstructions. Jared’s account of family and quirky relationships with students and fellow scientists show how much we imperfect people can accomplish as we search for truth and nurture each other. Her truth is seen in the plant word, which, of course, is our world too.


This review was first published in the Sierra Club’s Muir View

Amy Lou Jenkins BSN, MS, MFA is the award-winning author of Every Natural Fact.  


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