On a freezing cold Minnesota winter night, a smart little girl plays in her father’s college science lab, surrounded by instruments and gizmos, more at home in the lab than the house she grew up in. Her quiet preoccupation with the objects of science fills her with a sense of who she is. A sense of rightness in a world that has a lot of wrong in it.
Soon, she and her father turn out the lights, button up their coats, walk outside and look up at the stars, then walk home in silence. “We had long since established the habit of not speaking as we walked the two miles home; silent togetherness is what Scandinavian families do naturally, and it may be what they do best.”
Silence is the air this little girl breathes in her reserved, keep-to-yourself family. It’s the normal that she grew up in. A normal without affection. Her mother was a bright woman who seethed with a scathing resentment at being denied the college education that would’ve freed her to be a scientist, settling for marriage to a scientist instead. The resentment left its mark on the little girl. She always thought it was her fault somehow.
So the smart little girl, smart enough to earn the college scholarship her mother couldn’t, grew up and left for college as soon as she could, to live the life denied her mother. Burning bright with a desperate ambition for science, for a lab like her father’s.
“Lab Girl” is the story of that little girl’s journey from precocious schoolgirl to hyper-driven college student to think-outside-the-box research scientist. It starts out in arctic Minnesota and ends up in balmy Hawaii. It’s a story of struggle and stress and sleepless nights, of the desperate scramble to keep her head above water, to overcome the male bias in the Academia of Science, to keep her lab funded.
Hope Jahren’s story alternates between poignant memoir and illuminating scientific vignettes that bring to life the inner workings of the botanical world, comparing their struggle to survive with our own.
“A cactus doesn’t live in the desert because it likes the desert; it lives there because the desert hasn’t killed it yet. Any plant you find growing in the desert will grow a lot better if you take it out of the desert. The desert is like a lot of lousy neighborhoods. You can’t afford to move.”
But it’s her irreverently comical and touching relationship with her endearing freakazoid Armenian lab partner and best friend, Bill, and their wacky adventures, that are the heart of the story.
While on a science field trip, Hope and Bill visit Monkey Jungle in south Florida with some students. Hope spies Bill and a spider monkey staring intently at each other.
“…Both of them sported the same hairdo, a three-inch long, dark brown, shiny mop that stuck up in all directions, having been groomed with little more than a few vigorous scratches during the last two weeks. This same shag covered both of their faces, and their lithe limbs hung with an athletic readiness that was only weakly camouflaged by their affected slouches. The spider monkey’s dark, limpid eyes were wide open and his facial expression suggested that he was in a permanent state of shock.
The fascination between Bill and the monkey was so complete that it was as if the rest of the world didn’t exist. As I watched, I felt the cramps in my stomach that customarily foreshadowed the laughing that continues long past the point of being pleasant or comfortable.
Bill finally stated, without redirecting his stare, ‘It’s like looking in a f***ing mirror.’ I doubled over into a series of helpless guffaws that eventually progressed into a sort of prayer for relief.”
But right alongside the laugh-out-loud humor, Jahren recounts the agonies of loneliness, the horrors of untreated bi-polar, the indignities of being a woman in a man’s world and finally the sweet success of love, motherhood, wellness and the scientific acclaim she’s worked so hard for, moving in 2008 to start not one, but two, labs at the University of Hawaii.
I loved this book. I loved Jahren’s writing style, her feistiness, her stamina, her way of weaving botanical snippets through a tender love story. I loved the courage and the grit and the unfolding, the wisdom and the humor and the pathos. And I’ll never look at plants and trees, mosses and weeds in quite the same way again.
She dedicates the book to her mother.