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November 2017: Lab Girl (Jahren)

posted Dec 13, 2017, 7:46 PM by East Bay Smith Club
In November, nine of us gathered at Deebie’s house for a lively discussion of Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl.  As a geobiologist, Jahren spends a good deal of time sorting and labeling samples to make sure she knows exactly what she is dealing with. It is unexpected, therefore, that her memoir defies easy classification. It seems to be part autobiography, part travel diary, part primer on the fascinating nature of plant science, and part a harrowing portrayal of the author’s struggles with mental illness. Above all else, Jahren suggests, the book is a portrait of her friendship with a man called Bill, who has been her best friend, lab partner, sidekick and scientific muse for the past twenty years.

As you might expect from this description, some of us found Lab Girl a bit disorienting. Just as we figured something out about the author and/or Bill, Jahren would introduce a twist that made us question everything we thought we understood. We get enticing glimpses into many aspects of her life, such as her feelings for Bill and for her parents, her teaching style and connections to her students, her research methods and interests, her struggles with mental health and her frustrations with academia. However, her focus on these features is always through a moving frame that makes it hard to get a handle on things. Is she a good teacher or an exhausting and exasperating one? What exactly is her diagnosis and how successfully is she able to manage her condition? How does Bill really feel about her? (He follows her from state to state, sleeping in a van or office to do so, and seems to take it hard when she marries another man, and yet Jahren insists he has no romantic interest in her and finds the prospect nauseating.) How does she really feel about Bill? (She asks her readers to carve his name into tree trunks in his honor but never gives his full name and dedicates the book to her mother.)

Perhaps, it would be too much to expect full answers to these questions. As we learn from Jahren’s evocative descriptions of plants, life is complex and often astounding. Things don’t always fit neatly into boxes. Even if Hope and Bill’s relationship is as hard to classify as the book itself, their fierce loyalty and affection is richly portrayed, and it certainly was enjoyable to get caught up in the frenzied action of their early careers. Even though it is exhausting just reading about the work and sacrifice it took to get their labs going, their enthusiasm for scientific inquiry is contagious. In the end, if pressed to give the book a single description, I’d say it is a dizzying ride-along with a woman whose dedication and limitless energy has led to remarkable success in her field. When you’re done you may not be sure exactly where you went, but you know you saw some fascinating things along the way. [Oh, and thanks to Mary Stapleton’s internet sleuthing we know Bill’s full name. It’s Bill Hagopian (  So, I guess some questions are more easily answered.]

-Karen B