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For non-scientists, perhaps the only thing more tedious than actually performing laboratory experiments is reading about them. So it's an impressive accomplishment that, for more than 300 pages in her latest book, author Allegra Goodman manages to make lab work not just passably engaging, but at times downright riveting.
That's because unexpected lab results set the plot in motion in Intuition, Goodman's follow-up to Kaaterskill Falls, the 1999 debut novel that got its then-32-year-old writer nominated for a National Book Award. Though not herself a scientist, Goodman's degrees from Harvard and Stanford make her well-acquainted with the competitive intellects and brittle egos she describes at length in her latest undertaking, which also follows a pair of highly acclaimed short-story collections.
As befits a work this cerebral, each character in Intuition is something of a head case. Though everyone ultimately gets his or her moment under the microscope, the book opens with a psychological dissection of Cliff, a once-promising cancer researcher whose current two-year investigation hasn't produced any meaningful results.
He senses that he may be on his way out of the lab - correctly, in fact, because figuring out how to terminate him is exactly the question under consideration by Sandy Glass, the gregarious self-promoting director of the lab who's constantly in search of more prestige and funding. Sandy's co-director, Marion Mendelssohn, provides a crucial counterbalance to her outspoken partner, urging restraint both in interpersonal relationships within the lab and in trumpeting promising results as they emerge.
How to react to such results becomes a pressing topic for Sandy and Marion after the discovery that one of Cliff's experiments - which involves injecting mice with a synthetically created virus - appears to melt tumors and send breast cancer cells into remission. A potentially revolutionary development, the discovery launches Sandy into a series of fantasies about publicity while his compulsively cautious counterpart argues for patience and awaiting the results of further tests checking Cliff's findings.
Cliff, meanwhile, has undergone a professional metamorphosis - only recently bemoaning his missteps on the path to mediocrity, he's been totally reinvigorated by his compelling discovery, which has saved his floundering career and may yet catapult him to the highest ranks of his field.
The results of his work are greeted enthusiastically by all his colleagues except for Robin, Cliff's girlfriend and a researcher also caught in the daily torment of experiments that don't seem to be going anywhere. Robin looks on uncertainly as the lab's resources are suddenly thrown Cliff's way, with her own efforts pushed aside to clear more space for his. Consumed with work that might make his career, Cliff misses signs of dissatisfaction from his girlfriend, leading to an explosion of jealousy and resentment that ripples across the entire lab.
What might simply have been the end of a doomed rivalry-romance turns out instead to be Intuition's major plot twist. Sidelined romantically and professionally, Robin stumbles onto some sloppily scribbled notes that suggest something almost unthinkable about her ex: that he has falsified or distorted his work in order to boost his troubled position within the lab and save his chances for future scientific glory. The theory makes plenty of sense - Cliff's dramatic discovery has completely turned around his career - but Robin is conflicted about her suspicions, and fears they will only make her look petty and vindictive to her co-workers at the lab.
As Robin fades into a fog of ambivalence and frustration, the rest of the lab leaps into activity to bolster Cliff's findings. An article about the results soon appears in the prestigious scientific journal Nature, while mainstream newspapers and People magazine begin devoting reverential coverage to the experiments. Even Marion, normally so cautious about publicizing her lab's findings, is swept up in the excitement, while Sandy glories in the lab's newfound prestige and potential fundraising abilities.
Eventually, however, Robin chooses to go forward with her doubts about Cliff's work, a decision that leads to a congressional inquiry and sets up a series of tense, unhappy encounters between the major and supporting players at the lab. Stretching these events across a plausibly lengthy timeline, Goodman gives herself sufficient space to plumb the thoughts and motivations of a wide array of characters, who include Sandy and Marion's faithful spouses as well as figures involved in the investigation of Cliff's work.
Goodman's readers don't need to take her descriptions of the lab's work and atmosphere on faith; according to an article in Slate magazine by Harvard Medical School Professor Jerome Groopman, the writer "displays remarkable knowledge of the inner workings of the modern biomedical enterprise." She also convincingly describes the unique mix of competitiveness, ambition and insecurity driving each of the lab's major personalities.
Readers expecting a straightforward "Cliff lied/he didn't lie" ending will be disappointed. It's hard to blame them, given all the suspense Goodman creates, but the novel's conclusion is ultimately more satisfying, an observant depiction of the mental tricks very smart people use to rationalize their actions, especially when they don't fully understand or recognize the fundamentally emotional aspect of human behavior.
Rather than clean-cut outcomes, Goodman's researchers emerge from their ordeal with altered if still recognizable perceptions of themselves. Many of their relationships have frayed - some are simply unsalvageable - and no one will look at lab work the same way again. Chastened and sobered, the characters have come to realize that the notion of scientific objectivity, of professional distance and clinical reserve, is just another in a series of closely held self-deceptions.