Experimental Heart by Jennifer L. Rohn
Cold Spring Harbor Press, 2009
Experimental Heart is a novel in two parts: the first is an account of the biologists in a leading institute in London, and the research they do; the second is a plot-driven story. In chapter 1, Andy O’Hara, a postdoctoral researcher, is working late one night in the lab. This is normal for him; his life consists of 13-18-hour days at work, seven days a week, a vending-machine diet, odd hours in the pub, and snatched hours of sleep inbetween. He’s a loner, despite being an attractive man who the other female characters in the novel either have fallen for in the past or would like to in future. The reason for his driven, somewhat arrogant and solitary nature lies, we are led to understand, in his family background. His father was himself a scientist who died in his 40s of a malignant melanoma, and Andy has chosen a similar career in response, keeping an old photo of his father in his desk drawer as an inspiration.
Andy is interested in Gina, whom he can watch through his window as she works in her own late-night laboratory routine. Unlike Andy, Gina works in the commercial sector, seeking practical medical applications of the research she does. Andy spends quite a bit of time trying to pluck up courage to strike up a friendship (and perhaps more) with her, though is constantly foiled by work and the fact that Gina always seems to be monopolised by other people. While Andy muses on Gina and struggles with his feelings about other female characters, we are told an enormous amount of detail about the experiments that he and his colleagues perform and the possible biological implications; about the working and drinking life of young, childless scientists; and about the publications, seminars and conferences that form the background to their tense occupations. The author is very much on a mission to show the reader what it’s like to be a scientist in a highly competitive environment where there aren’t enough jobs for everyone and where you are in an invisible race to be the first to publish your results.
Because scientific research is such a specialist and intellectual occupation, the characters have a camaraderie (even when they irritate each other) and a sense of “separateness” from the rest of society; the author is excellent at conveying this rather superior alienation. In the background to this story is a group of animal rights activists who are both frighteningly violent and rather well-informed about the research going on at the institute. These activists, as well as several parties attended by the characters where there are some convenient “non scientist” flatmates or guests, provide a platform for us to be told the various ideological positions about genetically modified crops, research on living organisms, and other dangers or benefits of contemporary biology research.
All this is fascinating if you are interested in what makes a small group of scientists tick and in following the ins and outs of their research. It might be a little hard-going if you aren’t. In the second half, however, the author drops much of the explanatory tone and instead gets stuck into a tense story in which Andy and his colleagues realise that Gina may be being dragged into a project that is not only highly unethical but extremely dangerous. This part of the novel is very clever, and the tension the author wrings out of measuring radioactivity or running a gel is truly nail-biting!
For me, the strengths of the book are in the way it explains rather technical and complex scientific concepts in an accessible manner, and the scientific detective story of the second half - not a story in which it is a challenge to work out what is going on and who is responsible, but exciting in the thriller sense. On the other hand, I did not find the half-dozen or so characters that interesting, so could not care that much about their romantic ups and downs, though I was certainly rooting for Andy and Gina at the end.
This novel is steeped in a passion for biological research. Just as many books have appeal because of their beautifully conveyed sense of a particular geographical place, science is the country of Experimental Heart, and it is one that this author conveys authentically and lovingly. It is scientific research that is the hero or heroine of this enjoyable novel.
Jennifer L. Rohn, the author, is a cell biologist and founder of LabLit, a wonderful website that promotes and celebrates science in culture and fiction. Find out more about her at her website. A selection of reviews of Experimental Heart is also available at the author’s website.