I read Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent recently and, though I didn’t love it like I thought I would, it gets many things right. One of these is the main character’s enthusiasm for nature and science–her love of fossils and delight in plantlife, and her excitement at the thought of encountering the Essex Serpent itself, and revealing it either as a new species, or as a remnant from prehistoric times.
This reminded me of all the other great books I’ve read over the last few years, starring women scientists. I can think of five in particular that I really enjoyed, and keep recommending to friends and family. They are–
1. Hope Jahren, Lab Girl
This is the only non-fiction book on this list, and it’s a memoir. Jahren, an award-winning paleobiologist, traces her life and career, pairing each chapter with a few pages of plant lore that manage to be both lyrical and informative (childhood/seeds; a risky decision/sending out a root; making a new friend/sprouting leaves). She talks about playing beneath the chemical benches in her father’s lab, designing and re-designing and then making a home out of the various incarnations of her own lab, accidentally blowing stuff up, the exhilaration of discovery, the weird traditions and in-jokes that form in academic environments, sexism, funding woes, mental health disorders–and most importantly, her adventures with Bill, her lab partner and best friend. The absolute number one reason I’m recommending Lab Girl is that it contains the richest, funniest, most moving, most wonderful account of a 100% platonic male-female friendship I’ve ever encountered in a book. Be warned though–this book also contains the most harrowing account of pregnancy and childbirth I’ve ever read.
2. Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things
Alma Whittaker, born in 1800, spends most of her life on her family’s estate in Pennsylvania. She inherits from her father a boundless curiosity, a passion for intellectual debates, and a keen interest in botany–particularly mosses. And then she meets Ambrose Pike–a strange, shy man, with a great talent for drawing, and mystical inclinations. This encounter disrupts Alma’s quiet life, and eventually leads her to unexpected adventures, travelling around the world, and figuring out evolutionary theory just before Darwin did. Unlike all the other women in this list, Alma is over fifty for most of this book, and, refreshingly for a fictional older woman–at least in my experience as a reader–her sexual fantasies and desires are a key aspect of her character, and move the plot forward.
3. Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation
A shady government agency sends a team of scientists (a psychologist, a biologist, an anthropologist, and a surveyor, all women) on a secret mission to an eerie locale known only as Area X. They soon discover an underground tower with a seemingly endless downward staircase, the walls marked with writing that sounds like a feverish corruption of Biblical verse: “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner…” Who–or what–wrote these words? What creature utters the strange, mournful calls the scientists hear at night? Is someone–or something–messing with their heads? Who can be trusted? What happens when you touch the plants in Area X, when you inhale their spores, when you catch a glimpse of the Thing that lurks in the Area’s marshes? Annihilation is small gem, thoroughly uncanny and compelling–and the sequels are excellent too! (though it works fine as a standalone story)
4. Sarah Hall, The Wolf Border
Rachel Caine is a wolf expert working in a nature reserve in Idaho, who moves back to her native Cumbria (in Northern England) when an eccentric aristocrat, the Earl of Annerdale, hires her to reintroduce wolves to his estate (and, by extension, to Great Britain itself, since wolves have long been extinct here). Besides the wolves, Rachel will have to contend with the Earl himself (whose motivations and long-term plans remain murky for much of the book), an unexpected pregnancy, a sexy vet, an estranged brother, and even the results of the Scottish independence referendum–which, in this book, results in Scotland’s split from the UK (making this, technically, alternate history).
5. Lily King, Euphoria
Inspired by events in the life of Mary Douglas, Euphoria centres on the love triangle between three anthropologists as they carry out their fieldwork in neighbouring New Guinea fishing villages. Nell Stone is a celebrity of sorts, having published a bestseller on her work on the Solomon Islands–she is enthusiastic and intellectually voracious, empathetic and imaginative. Fen, her husband, is rough and tough, with a knack for “going native”. Andrew Bankston is introverted and melancholy, and his brand of anthropology is somewhat abstracted and theoretical. Anthropology is a particularly problematic science–particularly as it was carried out in its beginnings–but I think King avoids romanticising it, and one of the recurring themes is the way the very act of observing something changes it. At one point Nell asks, “When only one person is the expert on a particular people, do we learn more about the people or the anthropologist when we read their analysis?” I read this book quite a while ago, so my memory of it is a little blurry, but one thing I remember well is a fantastic scene where the three anthropologists spend a sleepless night creating an all-encompassing Grand Theory of Personality, which perfectly conveys the electricity of shared intellectual enthusiasm.
What about you, readers? Any recommendations for books starring women scientists?