Allegra Goodman sets her latest novel, Intuition, in a long-ago, rent-controlled Cambridge. The Philpott Institute is an independent research lab not yet absorbed by the crimson maw of Harvard or some giant pharma-conglomerate, a place where scientists still pure of heart pursue the molecules that will cure death and bring them fame, fortune, or grant money. It’s ruled by egoistic oncologist Sandy Glass and serious, brilliant Marion Mendelssohn and manned by a variety of hardworking and ambitious post-docs and grad students.
Cliff Bannaker is a golden boy from MIT who hasn’t lived up to his highly touted potential. When he experiences a sudden breakthrough, the delicate dynamics of the lab are disrupted. Intoxicated by the cancer-curing possibilities, Sandy initiates a publicity campaign that will bring the lab (and himself) glory and grants. The Philpott is swept up in the excitement. People magazine dispatches a reporter and photographer to the lab. Only Robin Decker, Cliff’s fellow researcher and girlfriend, has doubts about the miraculous discovery, which seems “too good to be true.” Fueled partly by resentment and partly by old-fashioned skepticism, Robin resists Sandy’s “brutal, jingoistic marshalling of resources,” and the novel turns into a mystery as she tries to discover whether Cliff’s findings are real or counterfeited.
Goodman presents a relentlessly harsh look at the lives of her researchers: “scientific sharecroppers, they slaved all day. They were too highly trained to stop.” The result of years of disappointment and lack of recognition are compressed into Marion, a girl who was once “quick to smile, joyous in her facility as carbon structures opened up to her, each in turn, lovely and elliptical.” After years of failure, “she’d grown thin and patient, critical of herself and others.” When opportunities at more prestigious labs do not present themselves, she ends up at the Philpott, where “she came as a pauper.”
Despite the secular location of this cancer-research lab, Goodman does not wander far from the spiritual themes of her previous novels. The scientific mission of her post-docs runs parallel to the religious quest of her protagonist in Paradise Park, as if there were little difference between the devoted researcher and the devoted anchorite. The ties of family and community she examined in Kaaterskill Falls, her novel of an Orthodox Jewish community, are re-created at the Philpott. And the chaste and ethical (Robin and Marion) are rewarded while the materialistic and corporeal (Sandy and Cliff) are cut off from what they love.
It’s as if choosing a worldly setting allowed Goodman to up the moral and spiritual ante. She shows an almost 19th-century sensibility in the depiction of her researchers and the creation of a web of secondary characters. (Aiden, a lab tech and aspiring professional baritone, sings Bach to the listless, afflicted mice in their lab cages.) These outliers, unburdened by spiritual meaning, activate her most intricate and at times ironic but always compassionate prose.
Allegra Goodman | March 9 | Harvard Book Store, 1256 Mass Ave, Cambridge | 800.542.READ