Learning the rules of the lab

Lab Girl. Hope Jahren. Knopf. 290 pages. $26.95.
Lab Girl. Hope Jahren. Knopf. 290 pages. $26.95.

Any woman who opens her book with the line “There is nothing in the world more perfect than a slide rule” already has my heart. Hope Jahren could have also begun with this, a few pages later: “When I was five I came to understand that I was not a boy.” After that I found “My laboratory is like a church because it is where I figure out what I believe.” At that point, I had to stop marking great first sentences, because they were everywhere.

Lab Girl is the story of a girl who becomes a scientist. It’s also the story of a career and the endless struggles over funding, recognition and politics that get in the way. It’s the story of the plants and soil she studies. But — and this is the weirdest, coolest part about this book — it is really the story of two lab partners and their uncommon bond.

Hope and Bill meet on a soil taxonomy field trip, where students are told to dig holes and document what they find. Bill moves away from the group to dig his own series of holes. When Hope asks him if he’s off by himself looking for gold, he answers: “No. I just like to dig. I used to live in a hole.”

This is not going to be any ordinary friendship.

The first thing I want to say about the story of Hope and Bill is that I had a sense, right from the beginning, that she was going to let us into this peculiar, inscrutable, enduring association with honesty and compassion, which is to say she would be writing about a relationship that is ongoing, with the permission of the other party. This is not as easy as it sounds. It’s hard to tell the truth about another person in their presence. She gives him privacy when it’s called for — we learn only the vaguest outlines of his life outside of work (including the particulars about that hole he once lived in)—- but otherwise, she lets us walk right in.

When two misfits meet, they tend to connect at a deep, unspoken, lizard-brain level that cannot be easily explained to anyone else. The fact that she even tried — much less succeeded so brilliantly — to put their lab-partners-for-life arrangement on paper is one of the most impressive feats in this extraordinary book.

After that first field trip, Jahren talks her boss into hiring Bill on the grounds that he’s the smartest one in the class. Over the years, she strings together grant funding to keep him employed in her laboratory, even when he’s paid so little that he sleeps under his desk. At times they’re roommates. For a while he lives in his car.

Bill stays loyal to her during her worst times, including a spell of anxiety that leads him, in an uncharacteristically intimate moment, to ask her to see a doctor and get some Prozac. When she argues that she doesn’t need it, he says: “Then don’t take it. Give it to the homeless guy who lives in your laboratory.” By the time Jahren marries “the strongest and kindest man I had ever met,” a mathematician named Clint, and moves with him to Hawaii for a university job, it seems entirely reasonable for her to insist that the university also offer permanent employment to Bill, with a guaranteed salary. He’s family, too. He goes where she goes.

Oh, and about that Prozac. It turns out that Jahren, in the midst of her sparkling observations about what plants do (transpiration, strangulation, hibernation), and her accounts of junk-food-fueled research trips through Ireland, Alaska and the Georgia swamps, lets slip a little about what it’s like to live with anxiety and manic depression. It comes up sporadically and unexpectedly, the way these things do in real life. It breaks through.

Mostly, though, this book is delightfully, wickedly funny. I was constantly surprised by the literary tricks this first-time memoirist manages to pull off. In a chapter about a college job at a hospital pharmacy, she mentions offhandedly that her English term paper would explore the uses of the word “heart” within “David Copperfield.” For the rest of the chapter, lines from Dickens drop in when you least expect them. When her chain-smoking boss Lydia drives her home after a late shift, on the grounds that “asshole rapists” made it unsafe to walk, it goes like this:

“Lydia never drove off until she saw you go inside and flash the porch light on and off. ‘Blink it more than once if somebody needs their balls ripped off,' she instructed us maternally. She did not replace my mother; no one could do that; but she came into a vacancy in my heart, which closed upon her, I remembered from chapter four, and smiled to myself.”

She swerves from observations about plant life (“A cactus doesn’t live in the desert because it likes the desert; it lives there because the desert hasn’t killed it yet”) to a report from the interior of her tortured brain (“Full-blown mania lets you see the other side of death”) to adventures on the road with Bill (“ ‘Do you really think this is illegal?' I asked Bill over the CB radio.”) — and somehow, it all works, because the structure and the language follow the story.

With Lab Girl, Jahren has taken the form of the memoir and done something remarkable with it. She’s made the experience of reading the book mimic her own lived experience.

Amy Stewart reviewed this book for The Washington Post.