A Marriage of True Minds
by Hope Jahren
Knopf, 2016, Vintage, 2017
reviewed by Seana Graham
This acclaimed memoir by geobiologist Hope Jahren has many interlacing strands. On one level it is the story of how a girl growing up in small town Minnesota ends up running her own research lab in Hawaii. On another it is an effort to convey the sheer wonder of the plant life with which we share this planet. On a third, it’s an essay on how research science actually happens in America. And finally, I would argue, it is an unconventional love story.
I could in no way be counted in the anti-science camp, but as someone who has seen the liberal arts side of my own University of California campus increasingly embattled since I left school, I may have had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about big science in academia. Perhaps legitimately, but after reading Lab Girl, I realize that the last people I should blame are the actual scientific researchers. A great deal of their professional time ends up being spent trying to find funding for their projects. As Jahren illustrates, sometimes they go to some pretty unorthodox lengths to do so. And a lot of their actual work is of a fairly unglamorous sort, spending hours and days collecting data and then more time analyzing it. However, over the course of the book, Jahren illustrates many times why all of this is ultimately rewarding. She describes one of her own solitary moments of discovery and the rapture she feels that, for a short while, she is the only person in the world to know its significance.
Without anthropomorphising, Jahren is able to help us get a sense of life as it is lived out by plants–their strategies, compromises and economies, many of which remain mysterious even to those who have studied them extensively. The odds against a seed even sprouting let alone becoming a plant capable of reproduction are extraordinary, and indirectly we gain a sense of our own improbable luck at being here at all.
Judging by numerous other fine works on nature and biology, Jahren could have gotten away without personal anecdote at all. Instead, she writes effectively of some of her own vulnerabilities and she chooses to write extensively of her great working partner, a graduate student she picks up along the way. While in no way a romance, the deeply attuned nature of Jahren and her assistant Bill’s relationship is of a type too rarely recorded. As one of the members of my book group astutely wondered, if Jahren had been a man and Bill a woman, would we have heard anything about it at all?
As Valentine’s Day approaches, then, let us not just focus on the romantic aspect of life, but on the many loving relationships all around us, which may come in strange guises and from unlikely sources.
Oh, and if you’d like to give Jahren a gift in return for the one she’s given us, you could do worse than to go plant a tree, as she requests all of us to do at the end of the book.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She also reviews for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. She has co-authored a trivia book about her native Southern California and is currently working on a screenplay. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.