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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 12, 2006

‘Intuition’ captures thrill of chase

By Christine Thomas
Special to The Advertiser

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Questions about ethical standards are increasingly at the fore of our society, especially in a time where a protracted war and rapid scientific advancements have raised concerns about transparency and motivations.

Science provides a broad canvas of moral ambiguity for Allegra Goodman's new novel, allowing her to examine the intersection of politics and research, seen locally right now in the Navy research center controversy at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa, where both of Goodman's parents were professors.

With its crisp Austenian title and isolated setting of a scientific research laboratory, "Intuition" shrewdly invokes both realism and the largess of our future choices. Yet the book doesn't judge, but instead conjures a distinct community where complex questions can be raised and relationships investigated.

The story takes place not in Hawai'i, where Goodman was raised and her previous novel, "Paradise Park," was set, but in and around the fictional Philpott Institute, a cancer research facility in Boston headed by Marion Mendelssohn, a pure scientist seeking success, and Sandy Glass, an oncologist for whom "appearances were not superficial, but of substantive importance."

Sandy and Marion have an engaging relationship, believable as a close but not romantic office partnership. Feng, one of their star postdocs, is a Chinese national and conscientious worker who evinces "patience, diligence, sarcasm, pessimism" to "(protect) him from failure and hurt." Cliff and his girlfriend/colleague Robin, though difficult to like, are involved in an expertly navigated knot of love and betrayal that forms the core of the book.

Goodman's characters are captivating and well imagined, but it is the sophisticated and complicated calculus of emotion and action that are most successfully portrayed. We don't just feel one emotion; for instance we might feel angry then guilty. People want the glory that comes from success, and fear it. After all, men at least as far back as Odysseus have learned, fortunes can change on a dime. Where once Cliff's research, and he, were both failures, leaving him wondering whether "he would have to teach high school," suddenly his experiments show promise and "the other postdocs' excitement brushed against him, as their pity had burned him days before." Cliff, in turn, feels superior, "and then, just as quickly, he felt like an idiot."

Goodman also reveals the powerful intricacies of people's self-doubt and imaginations, showing how at first Robin can't decide if she's imagining inconsistencies in Cliff's data, or if it's real. Cliff imagines that Feng is resentful of him, but can't be sure he hasn't invented it all in his mind. And even Marion sees one thing on Feng's face, but in truth "she misread Feng's expression. He was not thinking about Robin, but about the language Marion had used."

At some point, we all have to trust our intuition, but in science, intuition is a rogue state seen as leading researchers to "willful interpretations," just as Robin's "single intuition (was) transformed into a conspiracy theory implicating not only Cliff but nearly everyone who worked around him."

Goodman's talent as a storyteller and observer, however, is undeniable, and she captures group interaction with vivid scenes of crowded dinner tables, complete with rapid-fire conversation. Likewise, an immaculate attention to detail has just about every unasked question about characters and plot addressed. Sometimes this thoroughness delays action, but is made up for by long explanations culminating in well-placed and poignant similes.

The scientists in "Intuition" believe that "talent hardly mattered if you couldn't get results ... you needed luck." Goodman's compelling novel shows her to have both in abundance.

Christine Thomas' reviews have appeared in The Times Literary Supplement and The New York Times Book Review.