Review: INTUITION by Allegra Goodman

INTUITION is an aptly named novel set in a Boston cancer research lab run by Marion Mendelssohn, a scientist known for her adherence to the strictures of scientific methodology, and Sandy Glass, a scientist and clinician who has a flair for the dramatic, especially if it will bring publicity, and much-needed money, to the lab’s research. Working for them is a group of post-doctoral scientists engaged in the rather mundane but necessary trial, error and repetition of scientific experimentation. Cliff is one of the post-docs and is beginning to question his choice of career when things don’t go well for one of his projects. However when he notices that R-7, a virus variant he has been working with, appears to have eradicated tumours in his lab mice his interest, and faith, in science is re-kindled. The entire lab is soon swept up in the project as Sandy works to garner publicity and the other post-docs put their own projects on hold while trying to replicate Cliff’s results. But just when all is looking rosy it emerges that perhaps Cliff’s data is not as robust as it first appeared.

Other than a recommendation from the woman who shares my reading DNA that this is ‘a good fictional book about science’ I knew nothing about INTUITION before embarking on it and I was reminded what a treat it is to come to a book in such a manner. I literally had no idea what to expect from one chapter to the next and this sense of the unknown lasted until the very end of the book.

I was fascinated by the setting of INTUITION which depicted a working environment that is as exotic to me as any of the Scandinavian towns my more regular reading involves. Goodman, who isn’t a scientist herself but is married to one, has created a very credible setting (even the scientists who have reviewed the book think this) in which the post-docs spend such long hours in the lab that they virtually become each other’s family. And in that way that families can do they both love and hate each other, sometimes at the same moment. They display a mixture of laughter, love, jealousy (petty and not), dedication, obsession and insecurity that makes it very easy to be drawn into their world which might otherwise be inaccessible to non-scientists (in the same way that any jargon-rich environment can prove daunting for the uninitiated).

The characters are nicely drawn although there are none that demand total engagement, at least for me. I didn’t really love or hate any of them though I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with them all, with the possible exception of Cliff’s girlfriend Robin who I found a bit wishy-washy. Feng, the Chinese national, who provides the book’s lighter moments with his satirical sense of linguistic humour, is my favourite of them all, and not only because he’s an acerbic wit (though that is a big part of it).

But the heart of the book is really its exploration of truth. Is it always absolute? Can two people with two versions of the same events be telling the truth? Can a scientific truth exist when factors other than empirical evidence have played a role in its development? And that age-old chestnut, can the ends ever justify the means? Goodman doesn’t ram these ideas down readers throats but offers the opportunity to consider them as we are caught up in the roller-coaster ride that is scientific discovery.

I found myself quite transfixed by this sojourn outside my usual realm of cops and corpses and think perhaps I should visit the outside world more often.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 4/5
Narrator Kathe Mazur
Publisher Books on Tape [2006]
Length 13 hours 36 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone
Source I bought it
Creative Commons Licence
This work by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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6 Responses to Review: INTUITION by Allegra Goodman

  1. harvee says:

    I read ths some time ago and remember thinking it was a great mystery plot with excellent writing.


  2. Maxine says:

    So glad you liked it, Bernadette. I agree the characteristation was not its strongest point (perhaps typical of the sort of scientists described here….!) but I enjoyed the authentic potrayal of the experimental life and the “mystery” elements.


  3. Bernadette – I’m very glad you enjoyed this. After I read Maxine’s review I knew I wanted to read this one too and just hadn’t yet. Thanks for the reminder of it, so that I can bump it up on my reading list. I’m fascinated by the science aspect of this one.


  4. Kathy D. says:

    Sounds like a very good motivation to visit the “outside world” shown in this book. Will bump it up on my TBR list.


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