Hope Jahren’s memoir Lab Girl is beautiful, infuriating and funny all at the same time. It is the memoir of the paleobotanist Hope Jahren’s life as a scientist. When she writes about plants, she takes my breath away. When she writes about her own life, even when she writes beautifully, she undercuts her credibility with exaggeration and extreme statements.
For example, she claims the Minnesota winter lasts nine months. No, it doesn’t. I am from northern Minnesota, a colder place with a longer winter than her southern Minnesota town of Austin. Winters last six months, which is significantly shorter than nine. Oddly she never names Austin but describes it so completely that it is an open secret to anyone who knows anything about the state. These small exaggerations make me distrustful of her because they are so unnecessary. It’s damn cold in Minnesota. The winters are too damn long. There’s no need to exaggerate.
She says, “I never heard a single story about a living female scientist, never met one or even saw one on television.” So, we’re not that different in age, is she telling us she never heard of Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey? Yes, it is hard for women to get ahead in science, but you can’t tell me there were no women role models for her at all. That she says such absolutist things makes me roll my eyes in frustration because it undercuts her valid point that it is a struggle for women in science and that even inspiring young women to consider science is difficult. The issue of misogyny is so important and the need for more women in science and for women in science to be respected and heard is vital, so don’t undercut an important argument with exaggeration.
She also describes a fraught relationship with her mother that feels so very false and contrived. Her mother included her in everything, in her reading, her gardening, her studying. She didn’t tell her to run out and play. Her mother’s actions sound like those of a loving mother, but Jahren says she was not because she did not say the words and was not physically demonstrative. I guess for me, actions speak louder than words and her mother’s actions are those of a loving parent. I cannot know what she does not tell me, but from what she shares, she had parents who loved her.
However, these are small potatoes when weighed against the astonishing writing about plants. She anthropomorphizes plants in a way, but that is what her purpose is, to understand what it is like to live as a plant. To speak from the plant point of view as much as possible. When she writes about plants, she is magical. For example, consider this sentence, “A leaf is a platter of pigment strung with vascular lace.” Doesn’t that just make you stop in wonder? She explains how trees have an annual budget, they are in business and must survive hostile takeovers. She writes of the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi as though they are not alone, about tree rings as memoirs and on and on.
Jahren is a genius at explaining science in a way that is easy to understand. She also describes procedures clearly and completely. Clarity is the single greatest quality of her writing and she is most clear when writing about her work and her plants. When writing about herself, she is self-revealing, but exaggerates her flaws.
I love much about this book. I have qualms about her tendency to exaggerate and overdramatize. I have more qualms about her sort of gonzo scientist road trips with students that seem reckless with their health and safety. Most of the book centers on her deep and abiding friendship with Bill, her research assistant whom she loves like a brother, a brother who is homeless because his loyalty to her keeps him working on her projects even when not paid for it.
This is a good book, even though it has its flaws. It is a bit uneven, and sometimes big revelations just drop on you like a ton of bricks, like that she has bipolar disorder. Sure, that revelation can make you look back at her long shifts in the hospital pharmacy in a new light, but it does seem to come out of the blue. Is that the reason she is such a gonzo scientist?
Not everything is answered, but then Jahren makes that point about science itself. “We plant tiny trees during the night so that they may be baptized with morning dew, and sustain our faith that their measurement will yield knowledge to our scientific heirs, some two hundred years from now.” A memoir that leaves us with questions about a lot of things, the future, our planet, life on earth and the instruction to “Plant More Trees!” What more could you want?
Hope Jahren’s Blog: http://hopejahrensurecanwrite.com