Disclaimer: This is another review of a book written by a friend (see also Dance you Way to Psychic Sex).
It’s tough to review mates’ books. If I love it, I sound like a sycophant – and of course, I’d rather keep schtum than publish a damning review. But I’ll start by saying that I do love this book, and you should all buy it (and not just if you’re a scientist).
Set in the world of scientific research, Jenny Rohn’s second novel – The Honest Look – is all about interactions. From the mysterious interplay between proteins buried deep within cells to the emotional interactions between colleagues, friends and lovers, The Honest Look teases them apart to show us how they work.
The plot centres on Dr Claire Cyrus, fresh from her PhD and harbouring a secret double life as a poet. She’s one of the three people in the world who can work a mysterious and idiosyncratic machine known as the Interactrex 3000. This beast – seemingly part HAL, part Heath Robinson – hoovers up tiny samples of gloop from cells, identifying the protein players duetting in the molecular ballet within.
Packed off to an up-and-coming biotech company in the Netherlands who have just forked out a significant amount of cash for the machine, Claire’s arrival goes unheralded by resentful and dismissive colleagues. She ignores them and settles in to work, but gets distracted by a sexy and charismatic researcher (yes, they do exist, trust me…) and starts working on a sneaky side project – partly to fire up her own scientific mojo, and partly to impress him.
Things start to unravel when Claire makes an unfortunate discovery that throws a dark shadow of doubt on the effectiveness of the company’s sole output – a seemingly near-magical drug for Alzheimer’s disease. But coming clean gets tricky when she starts an affair with the aforementioned sexy researcher, whose future financial gains are dependent on the company’s success.
As we all know, secrets can’t stay hidden for long. Eventually everything comes crashing down, leaving Claire to be salvaged from the wreckage of the company, her relationship, and her scientific career by a different sexy, charismatic scientist (Yes! Another one!)
The whole book is scattered with snippets of poems, as Claire seeks solace and meaning in poetry – both in books and her own. As a writer as well as a scientist, I really enjoyed the insights into the poetical, as well as scientific, side of Claire’s mind.
Although it ends a little too neatly for my liking – any struggling artists reading the book are likely to laugh bitterly at the last scene – it’s a fantastic read. I devoured the whole thing in just a couple of days, and got totally wrapped up in the action.
If I’m to criticise anything (and I’m having to dig deep here) it might have to be the slightly excessive intrusion of Amsterdam into the book. Rohn paints a wonderfully evocative picture of what it’s like to live in the city, although at times it’s just a little bit of overkill, with Dutch references crammed into almost every page. But that’s being really petty, and generally her references to the people, places, culture and food of the place – one that I’ve visited many times – really do conjour up the spirit of the ‘Dam.
I recently read Jenny’s first book, Experimental Heart – a romantic science thriller (is that a real genre?) telling the tale of a hapless postdoc, a glamorous virus researcher, and a dodgy biotech company. Again, I loved it. The writing is pacey and engaging, and the plot twists and turns like the process of discovery itself.
I’d definitely recommend Experimental Heart to my scientist friends, but I wouldn’t suggest it to a non-scientist reader. In my opinion it’s just got a bit too much jargon in it, and the plot depends just a little too much on understanding the biological principles at work. But that’s not the case for The Honest Look, which I’ve been recommending to pretty much everyone since I finished it.
Yes, it’s set in a lab. Yes, the plot hangs on a point of biology. But there’s so much else to it that it doesn’t matter if you don’t know your nuclei from your neurons. It’s just a really great book, extremely well-written, and packed with action, intrigue, romance, poetry and – yay! – science.