As a young girl growing up in southern Minnesota, Hope Jahren spent her formative years in the labs of her father, a science teacher at the local community college. She found solace in the science classroom, and she credits her choice of vocation to that experience. “People are like plants,” Jahren writes, “They grow toward the light. I chose science because science gave me what I needed — a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be.”
Her childhood home was safe enough, but “the vast emotional distances between the individual members of a Scandinavian family are forged early and reinforced daily.” While her time in the lab with her father may have steered Jahren toward a path to science, her mother’s quest to earn a bachelor’s degree later in life meant that as a young girl Jahren read the classics alongside her mother. “My mother taught me that reading is a kind of work, and that every paragraph merits exertion, and in this way, I learned how to absorb difficult books.”
It is this literary upbringing fueled by science that heralds Jahren’s memoir as the beginning of a career along the lines of Annie Dillard or Diane Ackerman. She constructs her own life story — her struggling years as an undergraduate, the persistent sexist attitude of the scientific community, the constant lack of funds, her growing awareness of her bipolar disorder — with the attention to detail and respect for organic growth that has earned her increased recognition and funding in the later years of her career.
“Lab Girl” is long on detail, and short chapters act as vignettes connecting Jahren’s major life events and drawing comparisons between plant life and human life. The strongest story running through the memoir is a love story: that between Jahren and her colleague, Bill. Let me be clear: Bill is not her husband, but Bill fulfills every other role in her life, including that of work partner, travel companion, surrogate brother and best friend.
Jahren considers us all scientists, operating within our own sphere of study, and she writes this book as “one scientist to another.”
“People will tell you that you have to know math to be a scientist, or physics, or chemistry,” she writes. “They’re wrong. … What comes first is a question, and you’re already there.”
Meganne Fabrega is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
By: Hope Jahren.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 290 pages, $26.95.
Events: 4 p.m. April 21, University of Minnesota Bookstore, 300 Washington Av. SE., Mpls.; 3 p.m. April 22, Carleton College Library, Northfield; 6 p.m. April 22, Content Bookstore, Northfield.