Monday, January 31, 2011


Intuition, a novel by Allegra Goodman, is about a world I have never experienced: the world of a cancer research lab and the quest for a cure. Goodman creates wonderfully real characters, and as flawed as they are, you still like them. You still want to know more about them.

Sometimes authors let their characters be pulled along by the story, as if their inclusion is merely a passing thought. With some books, the characters are so one-dimensional and predictable it's as if the author believed the story to be good enough without significant character development.

Not so with Intuition. And that is its predominant strength. Goodman's writing is a close second.

Intuition follows the lives of several post-doctoral students toiling away in a cancer research lab run by two eminent researchers. Some have more success with their experiments than others, and jealousy, pride, and ahem... intuition come into play.

Cliff is struggling with his assignment. The virus he had been injecting into the test mice was doing nothing to cure their cancer. He is aware that his appointment at Boston's Philpott Institute is in jeopardy, but he can't imagine not doing research.

His girlfriend, Robin, a fellow post-doc at the Institute, understands his pain. Her research interests have been pushed aside while she is expected to conduct experiments for the good of the lab and she is frustrated. Her life is research - it's what she's good at. She's working on getting better at her personal life.

And then we have Marion Mendelssohn and Sandy Glass. Sandy, the head of the Philpott, is a brilliant oncologist, though a bit headstrong. Marion, his colleague and professional partner, is more collected and inquisitive. These two characters have everything and yet nothing in common. They work together quite well, and are, at first glance, stereotypical opposites. But Goodman doesn't let that happen. She created a beautiful partnership in Mendelssohn and Glass, and doesn't allow them to evolve into parodies even when faced with crippling negativity.

The plot is actually quite simple: Cliff's experiments start to get positive results and Robin is seemingly jealous. What follows is a whirlwind that no one expects. The ending is perfect.

Goodman writes so well. She equalizes the most trivial processes and specific scientific terms with her descriptions of the human experience, bringing the reader to a level footing. By explaining the scientific jargon - but not treating the reader like an idiot - she is able to make every sentence interesting and important. A story that could have drowned in terms is enhanced by her style. Her extensive exploration of cancer research, lab environments, and post-doctoral attitudes just enhances the book's quality.

Goodman introduces a good number of secondary and tertiary characters, and you can't help but enjoy each and every one. She allows each to be more than just background - they all enhance the plot.

Intuition was languishing on my bookshelf for over a year. I am so glad that I finally gave it a chance.

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