book review: A Perfect Life

a perfect life

A Perfect Life by Eileen Pollack. Ecco| May 2016| 375 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 9780062419170

RATING: ***/5*

I wanted to like this novel more than I did. Unfortunately there’s no such thing as clam chili at Legal Sea Foods or anywhere in New England. It’s not a thing. We eat New England clam chowder. This made me nearly stop reading early on. We drink frappes not frappés. Either include factual details or fabricate everything. McLean hospital isn’t spelled MacLean. That’s an egregious error on page 298. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton spent time there! Everyone knows about the Harvard Square pit and the vagabond kids that hang out there. Author Eileen Pollack also makes sure to mention the famed Citgo sign in Kenmore Square. I’m not proprietary. I’m a realist. If you’re writing about Cambridge, MIT and New England you need to know a few details.

Fortunately the science makes this novel interesting and kept me reading. The novel focuses on a hereditary neurological disease and a woman’s quest to discover the gene responsible for it so that she might help her own family. Using the search for a genetic marker for Huntington’s chorea as an inspiration, the novel focuses on Jane Weiss who lost her mother to Valentine’s disease. She and her sister have a 50/50 chance to get it. While Jane toils for answers, her sister Laurel travels the world partaking in one extreme adventure after another. She’s also part of a dance company. “But whenever I looked in a mirror, I saw my father’s humped nose. I was his daughter, after all. Or so the family myth had it. I was plain, clever, and ambitious, while my younger sister, Laurel, was blessed with our mother’s beauty and charm but doomed to die young.” Feminists will rejoice in reading about a female scientist; feminists might cringe at the personal storyline.

Pollack, who holds a bachelor’s in physics from Yale [as well as an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop], describes working in a lab quite effectively. She writes: “Vic sent our technicians to Star Market to buy rolls of Saran Wrap to mummify our gels, paper towels to wick them, toothpicks with which to transfer bacteria from one plate to the next. We ordered Seal-a-Meal bags from the company that made them for the Jolly Green Giant. Every six months, the labs on our floor held a Tupperware party, at which we badgered the hostess about whether her trays were resistant to formamide and whether or not they would buckle when autoclaved at 120 degrees.” The lab scenes show the strangeness, humor, drudgery and revelations. There’s this: “Achiro, our postdoc from Japan, was slicing mouse brains as thin as a butterfly’s wings and using chopsticks to mount the samples on glass slides.”

Years ago I worked in communications at a biotech company involved in the Human Genome Project. This novel takes place around that time in the late 90s. I’ve also worked in development and Pollack writes exceptional scenes about fundraising efforts. When the novel turns to more personal matters it falls short. Maybe the quest for a genetic marker isn’t enough to sell novels. There needs to be soap opera plot lines. A pregnancy from a one-night-stand and its implications, complications and philosophical implications grows tiresome. Focusing on the sisters and their approach to life knowing they might get a debilitating disease interested me more than any love story. If you want to read the most gorgeously written and riveting novel about science, read Allegra Goodman’s Intuition.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Ecco.


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