My interest in Lab Girl: A Story of Trees, Science and Love piqued when I seemed to see it everywhere at the start of the year. I am currently on a huge non-fiction kick, and am really getting into nature writing of late too, more reasons which pushed me to borrow Hope Jahren’s memoir from my local library. Lab Girl, states its blurb, is ‘a book about work and about love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together.’ It is described as a memoir at once ‘visceral, intimate, gloriously candid and sometimes extremely funny’.
Lab Girl has been split into three separate sections – ‘Roots and Leaves’, ‘Wood and Knots’, and ‘Flowers and Fruit’ – which are sandwiched by a prologue and epilogue. In the rather brief prologue, Jahren asserts: ‘Plant numbers are staggering: there are eighty billion trees just within the protest forests of the Western United States. The ratio of trees to people in America is well over two hundred. As a rule, people live among plants but they don’t really see them. Since I’ve discovered these numbers, I can see little else.’
In ‘Roots and Leaves’, Jahren begins her discussion proper by letting her readers know that she grew up in her father’s physics laboratory, ‘nestled within a community college in rural Minnesota’, where he taught for over forty years. She then goes on to set out a concise family history, which she admits she knows little about. Her great-grandparents travelled to Minnesota from Norway, as part of a mass-immigration that began in the 1880s: ‘The vast emotional distances between the individual members of a Scandinavian family are forged early and reinforced daily. Can you imagine growing up in a culture where you can never ask anyone anything about themselves? Where “How are you?” is considered a personal question that one is not obligated to answer?’
As the youngest of four children, she barely noticed when her three considerably older brothers moved away, as they often went days without speaking to one another. As a child, Jahren recognised an absence in her life, but cannot quite articulate what it is, or why it exists: ‘Back at home, while my mother and I gardened and read together, I vaguely sensed that there was something we weren’t doing, something affectionate that normal mothers and daughters naturally do, but I couldn’t figure out what it was, and I suppose she couldn’t either. We probably do love each other, each in our own stubborn way, but I’m not entirely sure, probably because we have never openly talked about it. Being mother and daughter has always felt like an experiment that we just can’t get right.’
When she moved away to University, Jahren chose to study science, ‘because it gave me what I needed – a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be.’ She talks with love about the numerous labs which she has personally created over the years, and discusses at length the ways in which she prefers them to be run: ‘In my lab, whatever I need is greatly outbalanced by what I have. The drawers are packed full with items that might come in handy. Every object in my lab – no matter how small or misshapen – exists for a reason, even if its purpose has not yet been found.’ She also notes the challenges which have befallen her during her career: the struggles for applying for a government grant to enable her to hire staff, buy equipment, and go on research trips, and the lack of money which the US assigns to ‘curiosity-driven research’.
Chapters which focus on her personal memories, and what her life as a scientist entails, are interspersed with shorter chapters regarding trees, seeds, and facts about the natural world. I found these pieces on the musings of the power of nature lovely in their approach, and came to prefer them far more to Jahren’s personal story. I must admit that I did find some of the conclusions which she drew between nature and her own life a little preachy, and too sentimental, however; for instance, when she writes: ‘Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.’ I tended to find certain parts of her writing a little jarring, and others patronising in their tone. It is as though, at times, Jahren forgets her target audience, and starts writing to young children about what their lives could hold if they just take care of themselves. In this manner, and in others, Lab Girl was not quite what I was expecting.
Lab Girl seemed to be randomly pieced together in places. There were also elements which were not fully explained. In a couple of instances, Jahren would mention a particular field trip which she took students on following the completion of her PhD, in which she assumed that the reader already had knowledge of the participants when they had not previously even been referred to. I found this lack of explanation a little confusing, and it could have been so easily remedied. The narrative arc is also only loosely chronological at times, so I had the sense that the book jumps around too much.
Whilst I feel as though I have learnt a lot with regard to the scientific data and facts which make up the interim chapters, I found that Jahren’s narrative voice became rather grating quite quickly. Whilst it is well written, there were certainly repetitions which I felt could have been cut to benefit the book, and there were other points at which it felt as though Jahren was trying too hard to write flowing, poetic prose. I did not personally find this a humorous read; whilst quips and asides have been inserted, Jahren and myself clearly have a very different sense of humour.
There was not the consistency within Lab Girl which I would have liked, and with regard to the reviews which I have seen of the book, I expected to like it far more than I did. I gave Lab Girl a three-star rating because I so enjoyed the pieces about nature. Had this been a straightforward memoir which omitted the natural world, however, I doubt I would have been so generous.