Acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren has built three laboratories in which she’s studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Her first book is a revelatory treatise on plant life—but it is also so much more.
Lab Girl is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren’s stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done “with both the heart and the hands”; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work.
Yet at the core of this book is the story of a relationship Jahren forged with a brilliant, wounded man named Bill, who becomes her lab partner and best friend. Their sometimes rogue adventures in science take them from the Midwest across the United States and back again, over the Atlantic to the ever-light skies of the North Pole and to tropical Hawaii, where she and her lab currently make their home.
I picked Lab Girl up from my library when I saw it on the new releases shelf, after reading an NPR article about it. Hope Jahren sounded like just the person whose memoirs I would want to read, based on the article and the book blurb. I was so, so right.
I loved this memoir from start to finish. It was a good mix of writing about trees and science, and the personal issues that come along with being a scientist, particularly a female scientist. Jahren’s writing was lyrical, profrane and wonderful, showing itself off in quotes like this one.
“People are like plants: they grow towards the light. I chose science because it gave me what I needed-a home a defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be.”
This book felt eternally honest, whether Jahren was talking about how plants work, to the way that her mental illness manifested itself, to her emotions about love and childbirth, and I highly recommend it to people who enjoy authors like Jenny Lawson or Lindy West.
It turns out that Hope Jahren writes a bunch of other stuff on her blog, so if you enjoyed this book, check it out!
As you can probably guess, I’m rating this five stars. There’s a particular quote that I loved but couldn’t find a way to work into the review, so I’m leaving it here at the bottom. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more, including the spruce tree that should have outlived me but did not.