Lab Girl by Hope Jahren – Review

Published by Fleet

Publication date – 21 April 2016

Source – review copy


“A frank, illuminating and incandescent memoir by a trailblazing scientist; a moving portrait of a longtime collaboration in work and life; and a book that casts a whole new light on the natural world.

Lab Girl is a book about work and about love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren’s remarkable stories: about the discoveries she has made in her lab, as well as her struggle to get there; about her childhood playing in her father’s laboratory; about how lab work became a sanctuary for both her heart and her hands; about Bill, the brilliant, wounded man who became her loyal colleague and best friend; about their field trips – sometimes authorised, sometimes very much not – that took them from the Midwest across the USA, to Norway and to Ireland, from the pale skies of North Pole to tropical Hawaii; and about her constant striving to do and be her best, and her unswerving dedication to her life’s work.

Visceral, intimate, gloriously candid and sometimes extremely funny, Jahren’s descriptions of her work, her intense relationship with the plants, seeds and soil she studies, and her insights on nature enliven every page of this thrilling book. In Lab Girl, we see anew the complicated power of the natural world, and the power that can come from facing with bravery and conviction the challenge of discovering who you are.”

I received a copy of this book from the publisher and this is my honest opinion of the book.

Lab Girl explores the career of Hope Jahren, Professor of Geobiology at the University of Hawaii, following her life from childhood to her current role. Professor Jahren and her colleagues work includes research into the effects of global warming upon plant and crop growth, endeavouring to predict the repercussions of climate change in the coming centuries.  It is a moving, funny, candid book that looks into a fascinating area of science and a fascinating woman who leads the way in the field.

This is a intriguing insight into not only the life of a scientist but also about botany in general. I’ll admit I knew little about plant life, save what I can vaguely remember from my school biology lessons and I had no knowledge of Hope Jahren and her work before I picked up her book.

What I really liked about the book was that the chapters alternated between the growth cycle of a plant or tree and the story of Hope Jahren’s life and career progression. The metaphorical seed of her interest in science was planted at a young age when she accompanied her father to his work. We see her career begin to sprout buds whilst she is at college and take root in her early career and the metaphor continues throughout.

Whilst I had little knowledge about the life cycle of plants I did find this aspect of the book fascinating. If the thought of reading a book about leaves and roots puts you off please don’t let it. The struggle a plant or tree goes through to grow to maturity is very interesting to read and you’ll come away looking at the grass and the elm at the bottom of your garden in a different light.

This is not just a book about plants. The majority of it is about Hope herself and she writes in such a  modest, engaging way, with oftentimes such beautiful prose you’ll forget you are reading a work of non-fiction.

There are some touching moments throughout the book. Hope Jahren is modestly open about her strained relationship with her mother and how her childhood was affected as a result, open in how this may have impacted upon her life, and her own approach to motherhood in particular. She is also very open about her manic depression, giving a fascinating and moving insight into how the illness manifested itself in her and how she balances this with her career and family life.

There is of course reference to the sexism faced throughout her career, and which she still faces despite of, or indeed as a result of her success and accolades. Hope Jahren is quite open about the issues she has faced because of her gender, that she and her work have not always been taken seriously and that there is the continuing battle of being a woman in a man’s field. However, she does not make this novel a militant crusade, she is matter of fact in the face of the sexism she meets, understands it to a point, and yes, is somewhat resigned to it. What shines through is that she has not let these attitudes stop her or embittered her and the fact that she has recieved so many awards and is considered so highly in her field is testament to this.

I adored reading about the relationship between Hope and Bill, her lab partner for the past 20 years or so. The development of their working relationship and the anecdotes recalled were a joy to read, genuinely touching and funny. The banter recollected between the two was heart-warming and it was lovely to see the friendship grow as the book progressed.

I’ll admit there were times that the scientific references went over my head. The complex world of botany and its processes sometimes required a re-read or two to sink in and I wasn’t always sure I understood things correctly but I didn’t let that spoil my enjoyment of the book.

This is the true story of the power of the drive to succeed, that you can battle inner demons and outside obstructions and win. It’s also a shining example that it is ok to follow your passion and that the bumps in the road of life can be overcome.

A fascinating, funny and thought-provoking read.

You can read more about Hope Jahren’s work on her website and more about her writing at #HOPEJAHRENSURECANWRITE.




6 Comments Add yours

  1. This sounds like a very good read, Janet, and how pleasing to read about a woman whose working life has been spent in science!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. janetemson says:

      It really was a refreshing change. Not a book I would normally read perhaps but one I am glad I did 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds like a very cleverly constructed book, I like the way the chapters alternate with the growth cycle and her life – not one I’d pick up normally but your review does have me very intrigued.


    1. janetemson says:

      It was constructed well, I felt it really worked with the chapters alternating from biology to memoir. It wasn’t a book I would normally think about reading either but I am glad I did. Let me know what you think if you read it 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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