A Novel Brings a Cancer Research Laboratory to Life

A Novel Brings a Cancer Research Laboratory to Life

After 2 years of steady failure with a potential cancer drug, Cliff, an oncology postdoc, suddenly achieves dramatic cures in mice, to the point that his findings are questioned as "too good to be true." Is it fraud or sloppy recordkeeping, or maybe a true breakthrough? The pleasure in reading Allegra Goodman's novel Intuition (The Dial Press, 2006) comes not so much from the plotline (the initial giddy celebration of the findings, and then the near destruction of the lab when fraud is alleged) as from the richness of the depiction of an oncology research lab and its motley inhabitants.

The postdocs include Cliff; Robin (his girlfriend and later accuser); Prithwish (who calls his avocado plant grown from seed his "most successful experiment"); and the "deliciously self-deprecating" Feng, whose pessimistic definitions, known as "Fungi," are collected in the lab (Successful grant proposal: "major disaster, long term"; Conference: "cancer junket"; Breakthrough: "artifact").

As the story opens in Boston in the late 1980s, the co-directors of the lab, Drs. Sandy Glass and Marion Mendelssohn, are chastising Cliff for not obeying their order to give up his fruitless research on the lab's mice, its "tiny livestock." "Did we or did we not agree," said Glass, "that you would end the wholesale extermination of our lab animals?" Cliff had continued blindly on, even though he knows that "no line of inquiry had to be right just because it matched the investigator's intuition."

Perhaps the most intriguing character is Dr. Glass, who, unlike anyone else in the lab, actually treats patients and is known for his ability to soothe the fears of terminal patients—"Look, we're all terminal," he told one breast cancer patient. "We're all predead."—and for his love of medicine. Dr. Glass urges his daughter Louisa to take the MCATs if only to give her brain "a little exercise." "Great, I'll be the only person taking the MCATs for fun," Louisa said. For Dr. Glass, she should choose medicine simply because it is "the greatest profession; that went without saying." As rare as it is for a novel to be set in a cancer research lab, it is perhaps even rarer for such a novel to be good. Highly recommended.

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