Allegra Goodman’s latest novel, Intuition (The Dial Press, 2006, $25.00) tells the story of a cancer-research lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where extraordinary results electrify and unsettle the researchers. Sandy Glass, a charismatic oncologist, and Marion Mendelssohn, a conscientious bench scientist, direct the work of their postdocs and lab techs, who form this novel’s ensemble cast. The plot follows the twists of romance, rivalry, and partnership, as well as the surges and lapses of expectations, devotion, and honesty that are more familiar to us from novels about husbands and wives, parents and children, lovers and siblings.
Goodman uncannily portrays lab culture: the humor, compulsive work ethic, and habit of delayed gratification that scientists use to cope with the uncertainties of achieving either significant results or the grant funding to keep trying. She lays bare the forces that drive her characters and the consequences they suffer with such delicate sympathy that each seems worthy of our interest. At the same time, she explores that old, intriguing question: Are art and science enemies or friends? Need imagination and fact be at odds? The two head scientists lean in opposite directions when it comes to this issue.
Sandy, who avidly pursues celebrity and major funding, is a self-made man, a determinedly assimilated Jew, a cheerleader to desperately ill cancer patients, and someone who understands “the value of enchantment,” Does he overreach, or does he recognize a deeper truth: that information—including the apparently curative effects of a virus injected into tumor-ridden mice—is only as meaningful as its implications in the larger picture of human hopes? Marion, on the other hand, whose meticulous preparations for Passover are her only form of Jewish observance, uses doubt as “a kind of intelligence,” a tool to chip away all but the purest truth. When accusations of fraud surface, all of the scientists struggle, according to their inclinations, with belief and skepticism.
Moving among multiple points of view, the book mirrors the complexity of current science, which is no longer a story of the life and discoveries of a single Great Man— Newton, Darwin, Pasteur—but a subtler tale of the gradual accretion of information through teamwork and competition. The book’s contested discovery arouses suspicion because it seems “too good to be true.” Perhaps anything so dramatic, anything with the pleasing form of a good story, must spring from the world of wishes rather than science, where findings are generally small and ambiguous. In this novel, Goodman has created a story of science that captures both the truth and the imagination.
Two other recent novels also take up medical research, but use real-life epidemics as dramatic backdrops. Myla Goldberg’s cluttered novel, Wickett’s Remedy (Doubleday, 2005, $24.95), is set during the First World War and concerns the life of Lydia, who manages twice to escape her Irish Catholic, working-class Boston neighborhood. First she marries Henry Wickett, an invalid who drops out of medical school on the brink of the 1918 influenza pandemic to promote his Remedy. Lydia designs the label and concocts the recipe. Later, widowed and back home, she escapes again by volunteering as a nurse’s assistant in an historically-based U.S. Public Health study directed at discovering the cause of the illness by attempting to infect Navy convicts.
Interposed between Lydia’s experiences are period newspaper articles (comparing “germs” and “Germans”) and episodes from the life of Quentin Driscoll, Henry Wickett’s partner, who steals the recipe for the Remedy and turns it into a fictional multi-million dollar cultural icon called QD Soda, only to become haunted late in life by his crime. Much of the QD Soda narrative is presented in the form of peppy QD newsletters about fan-club reunions, memorabilia, and the sainted life of Quentin Driscoll. On top of all this—or rather, on the side—the margins of the book contain stilted commentary by a community of the dead who regularly offer their two cents on Lydia’s story. This intriguing conceit disrupts more than it illuminates.
Although Lydia’s 1918 Boston life is vividly depicted, and the ravages of the flu are terrifying (especially in light of current anxieties about a bird flu pandemic), the elements of the book fail to cohere. Even the ethical and personal dramas of the medical study on human subjects, which should come clearly to the fore, disappointingly disintegrate. Instead, the book ends with a failed experiment, a gratuitous, gory autopsy, and a nurse-soldier romance-piled-up plot elements lacking any meaningful pattern.
In her historical novel An Imperfect Lens (Shaye Areheart Books, 2006, $25.00), Anne Roiphe creates a kind of suspense by detailing her characters’ numerous near-misses with cholera in late nineteenth-century Egypt. The slices of pineapple they turn down, the narrator tells us, have been cut by a knife sharpened on a whetstone dipped in water contaminated by human waste. Another kind of suspense, or perhaps sympathy, arises from the gap between this microbe-level omniscience and the ignorance of the earnest French scientists who are on a mission to Alexandria to discover the cause of cholera. Does it come from bird droppings? Rainwater? In the midst of other intrigues, a romance develops between an Alexandrian Jewess named Este and one of the scientists as they work together in the laboratory. The lovers fear run-of-the-mill opposition to their intermarriage, but are thwarted by even larger disasters in the last days of the epidemic. The French scientists lose the race of discovery to a rival German scientist, cholera at last claims a central character, and Este’s family must flee anti-Jewish hostility to find safety, ironically, in Germany. Cholera and anti-Semitism, it seems, subside at times, but will inevitably flare up again somewhere else.