The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Brief Summary: Reporter Rebecca Skloot tells the improbable story of a woman, her cells, and the plethora of scientific discovery her cells have led to—all shadowed by the racism and medical neglect that allowed the science to happen in the first place.
The Tsundoku Scale: Middle of the Pile, 6 out of 10.
The Good: Foremost, this is an important book; it tells a story that needs, and most certainly deserves, to be told. What science has discovered through the HeLa cancer cells, taken from the tumor of a black woman named Henrietta Lacks, is mind-boggling. From curing Polio to finding new drugs to combat cancer, these cells have found there way into everything—and Skloot successfully captures the magical allure of these cells. What’s more, she is able to effectively connect these cells to the people behind them, and bring to the forefront the pitfalls of cold, unrestrained eugenically based science. The irony is not lost on Skloot, nor the reader for that matter, that some of the most important cells in scientific history, have come from a black person. She does not overlook the fact that a black people, enslaved and persecuted by whites for never being “good enough,” somehow end up being more than “good enough” to significantly improve science, and to drastically improve all of humanity’s chance for a better, disease-free life. Skloot’s call for justice for the Lackses rings clearly and passionately throughout the novel.
The Bad: Though this book has essential, revealing research, it is not a great book. It’s just a good one. Skloot’s urgent mission to tell the true story of Henrietta loses its pull as the novel progresses. The story alternates from a non-fiction narrative on Henrietta, her cells, and their history, to Skloot’s own personal investigative research on the Lcks family—but the two stories do not mesh well. One scene in particular is a prime example where Skloot curses out Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. For though the scene emphasizes Skloot’s frustrations and Deborah’s own insecurities, it ultimately ends up feeling clumsy and disconnected. The reader can clearly understand the toll the research has taken both on Skloot’s subjects, and on Skloot herself from the simple curse. Nonetheless, she continues to explain what the scene means, and in over-explaining, she diminishes the power of the scene. More often than not, Skloot leans towards being too obvious in her approach, continually telling rather than showing her story to the reader, which takes away some of the story’s luster.