Book review: Lab Girl — a story of trees, science and love

HOPE JAHREN is an award-winning paleobiologist. The love in the subtitle could apply to a number of things in this memoir. 

Hope Jahren

Fleet, €15.99

For one it certainly applies to her feelings for plants and trees.

For the many non-scientist readers who like popular science books, this is a most accessible read, telling as much about her life as it does about her scientific study of trees. 

And it is a quirky, interesting, and unexpectedly revealing memoir from a writer whose honesty shines, sometimes startlingly.

Recalling her undergraduate days, she is stark and unsentimental about the choices as she saw them.

“I started working in a research laboratory in order to save my own life. To save myself from the fear of having to drop out and from then being bodily foreclosed upon by some boy back home. 

"From the small-town wedding and the children who would follow, who would have grown to hate me as I vented my frustrated ambitions on them.”

Jahren comes across as a prickly misfit with a compulsive drive to manage the thousand-time tests on seeds and get the job done, but this is counterbalanced by her spacier side where she lets her thoughts run wild.

Her dad had a lab in a small town in rural Minnesota and that was where her deep love affair with science was sparked. 

Her mother too was a very bright woman and a keen gardener and this book is dedicated to her. 

Yet Jahren’s life work seems to have been motivated by a desire to emulate her father.

When she arrived at Georgia Tech as a gifted young scientist with her own lab, she describes the singular pleasure of choosing and ordering chemicals and equipment, and feeling like a giddy bride picking out her gift registry.

The gift of this book is the way in which it invites us to look at trees as fellow living things. 

This is no tree-hugger’s tract or flimsy eco-parable; it is just hardnosed and descriptive but no less full of wonder.

In one passage, she talks about trees standing outside naked in below-freezing weather and how they manage to avoid death. 

As a rule their journey is not from place to place but instead it is a journey through time, through the seasons and the years. 

She describes the process of ‘hardening’ with spectacular clarity.

On the negative side are her hobby-horses about financing and some field-trip stories that get bogged down in tedious travel details, including one to the west of Ireland.

Her relationship with nature is not soft and lovey-dovey. 

On a field trip in a deeply forested area she ploughs on despite her brushes with poison ivy until it is necessary to get to hospital because half of her head as swollen into a scary looking blob.

And then there’s Bill. Bill is Hope’s constant companion in the lab, an assistant who, like her, is something of a misfit but fits perfectly into lab work and into Hope’s life.

The depth of her sisterly love for Bill is quite extraordinary.

The memoir takes one or two deeply quirky detours that might lose a few readers. 

For instance, Bill apparently had long, luxuriant hair, he cut it all off, and put it into a hole in a tree. He told Hope about it and they visit and put their hands into the tree to feel it, as you do.

The story is offered with a kind of take-it-or-leave-it shrug. 

Her husband and son — who appear late in the story — are clearly two people she loves deeply but Bill is her road movie co-star in this lyrical, confessional, weird, informative, and mordant memoir.


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