Intuition by Allegra Goodman.

intuition.jpg I really wanted to like this book. Instead I wanted to toss it under the sofa, never to see its wrinkled dustcover again. The concept behind Intuition seemed more than vaguely interesting: a charismatic postdoc in Cambridge discovers what could be a cancer cure, only to have his findings disputed by an embittered ex-girlfriend; a scientific hearing follows. Quite dramatic, no?

As a lover of The Crucible, I was looking forward to reading about the witch hunt the characters would have to endure. Instead, the high point for me was Goodman’s description of the mice used in the lab’s testing. A portion of the novel’s second act (there are six parts altogether) is devoted to mice and the stage of research at which they are injected with cancer cells; it is for these fictional animals and these animals alone that I felt any sort of empathy whatsoever. Indeed, Goodman writes of them with great clarity, even of their little, clinical deaths:

Here was the soft maroon heart, the size of a bean. Here the slippery liver, deep purple, its four flat lobes fanning out enormously as Cliff picked them up with his tweezers. Here the lungs. The kidneys, just the size of lentils. Here the intestines, curled intricately together. Once Cliff teased them out of the body, he’d never get them all back in again, packed as they had been.

Great stuff, right? Distressingly, nothing else in the novel stands close to this, not even in the remotest sense. In fact, the entirety reads like an inelegant mash-up of writing exercises — here is the flashback of how the young lovers first met, and of their first kiss; here is the stern co-director’s habit of knitting, bestowed upon her so that she may appear more human; here the tidy resolution, complete with the phrase “he saw the future stretching out before him”. I couldn’t believe I was actually reading the sentence from which that quotation is lifted. I thought my tired, bored mind was making it up.

Aside from the mice, the characters are wholly uninspiring. If that, in this character-driven novel, wasn’t bad enough, Goodman overzealously blankets the book with references to local landmarks. Meals aren’t just eaten at a Harvard Square restaurant, they are eaten at Harvest. Magazines aren’t simply purchased at a newsstand, they are bought at Nini’s Corner. Picnics aren’t had at a nearby pond, they take place at Walden. One character wears a Toscanini’s T-shirt. Another walks down MIT’s Infinite Corridor. Yet another goes to Plum Island to spy on the endangered Piping Plover.

Please don’t misunderstand — I am very much in favor of making a novel’s setting as authentic and integral to the story as possible. (After all, would From Here to Eternity be the same if it hadn’t taken place at Hawaii’s Schofield Barracks? Could the present in White Teeth be anywhere else but North London?) That said, Goodman is so heavy-handed with her attributions that it is completely tiresome. (Or, to use Keith’s word, irritating.) The effect is that of a name-dropper: insecure, uncertain and inflated. Exactly the opposite of how a novel should read. Unless it is intentional, of course. However, I doubt that this is the case here.

Make That Three at a Time.

I don’t know how this happened. Actually, that sentence is what is called a bald-faced lie, as I do actually know how this happened, this being the fact that I am now reading three books at once. The three books in question are, in the order in which I started reading them:

The reasons why I am reading this books are as follows:

  1. book club
  2. I have no idea, and
  3. because I haven’t read it in some time; I like to reread books; lately I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Steve, who was my writing teacher twice in college; and it just so happened that there was an excerpt in The Best Food Writing 2004, which I finished reading earlier in the month.

I got entangled in these three very dissimilar books because :

  1. About a year ago I started a book club as a way to potentially meet new people and potentially read books I wouldn’t normally have chosen myself, which is how I ended up getting a used copy of Arsonist’s and reading it on my commute to and from work. Now, Arsonist’s is still in hardcover; while it’s not necessarily long it is still quite substantial, so when Keith and I went down to New York two weeks ago, I left it behind. I didn’t want to pack both my laptop (light at five pounds, but still) and the hardcover (not that long, but still) in my handbag (quite roomy, but still), especially because I would need to schlep everything around on the subway, since we weren’t leaving until after work. Instead I packed the infinitely lighter Best Food Writing 2004 And so…
  2. …when we got home from New York, I was fully embroiled in the food anthology and although I knew I could stop reading at the end of whatever excerpt I was in the middle of, I finished the book. This would have been the prime time to return to Arsonist’s, which I hadn’t really been enjoying as much as I hoped, but instead I reached for Intuition, which I purchased on recommendation (Whose? I don’t remember.) with a gift card I received for Christmas. This is where things got a bit repetitive: Keith and I are going to New York again this weekend, and it just so happens that my copy of Intuition is a bulky hardcover (also purchased used, by the way), and I’m again bringing my laptop, and I’m madly in love with my roomy handbag, and I’m not enjoying Intuition as much as I had hoped…
  3. …which brings me to Candyfreak. Like Arsonist’s and Intuition, I’ve Steve’s book in hardcover. Unlike Arsonist’s and Intuition, it was purchased at full-price, brand-new. In addition, it’s considerably smaller, both dimension-wise and length-wise. Oh, and I’m enjoying it much, much more.

I’m hoping, upon our return from New York, that I’ll finish Candyfreak, if I haven’t already done so, then plow through Intuition, before revving myself up to get Arsonist’s out of the way on or by the twenty-seventh, when book club meets. Then again, I might just pick up something else.