This is a prime example of the reason why I attempt never to put a book down without finishing it, even if I don’t think I’m going to be thrilled with it. Because occasionally, I am.
I was initially terribly unimpressed with Intuition.
Allegra Goodman’s book seemed clunky in its prose, unrefined for a fifth novel. The characters seemed strained and somehow off.
I swore I could see the author’s laborious efforts clearly in the book, to the point where I saw the writing rather than the story, never a good thing.
And then the paint started to crack. The book pulls you into a glossy microcosm, so glossy that at first it seems more like a lurid picture out of a magazine than any representation of reality. Things feel forced because they are forced, but not on Goodman’s side of things. It’s that way because it has
to be. And as the luster wears away, stained with blood and sweat and tears, the characters come to light, the people and their fundamental, gritty real
The novel details the struggles of a small Massachusetts laboratory and the people who work, some quietly, some not so, in its depths. Frustrated young postdoctoral Cliff Bannaker has continued his research into using a virus to treat cancer, against the wishes of the lab directors, Sandy Glass and Marion Mendelssohn. The incipient stubbornness on all sides continues to grow, until Marion and another postdoc, Xiyang Feng, discover that Cliff might, in fact, be on to something. A flurry of papers, work, and enthusiasm envelops the lab, as a newly radiant Cliff floats on air. Robin Decker is less excited, though. Formerly Cliff’s girlfriend, she feels neglected and forgotten, luckless and bitter. The publicity storm rises to dangerous strength. And then Robin gets the little comment, the insinuation of falsification, she needs to bring it all crashing down around them.
The striking thing about the book is its characters. You come to know them, and you come to love them—all of them. You love them for their vulnerability, their fallibility, their humanity. Sandy, the interestingly named lab director, and his confidence, his brash insistence and surefooted resilience. Marion, Sandy’s co-director and counterpoint in her skepticism and insistent caution, along with an incisive concern. Cliff, sly and wily but high on an almost endearingly arrogant vision of the stars within his reach. Robin, methodically intelligent, bitter and needy, willing to do whatever it takes to get what she thinks is revenge. Feng, clever and quiet but determined to stand his ground when he finds his own feet. Kate Glass, Sandy’s starry-eyed teenage daughter, an adherent of literature—and of Cliff. These people simply scratch the surface of the cast of fascinating, well-rounded characters that make this book the triumph that it is. Goodman is a master of observation and invention—above all a master of plausibility, which is first and foremost as far as I’m concerned. (You know how inconvenient it is to not
be able to say “In my book” because you’re a novelist? Although I could have said it there, because it would have been true.)
Some would probably protest that the book moves slowly. It’s true; I noticed it, I just didn’t mind. It’s not an “action” book. It’s a cross-examination of its various characters, a lightly-treaded investigation set alongside the lumbering one that drives the plot. Each reader must draw his or her own conclusions about everything and everyone, which to me seemed Goodman’s main point.
So I guess, if you really want to know, you’ll have to read it for yourself.