- Paperback: 300 pages
- Publisher: Cold Spring Harbor Press (19 Nov. 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1936113112
- ISBN-13: 978-1936113118
- Product Dimensions: 20.8 x 2 x 14 cm
- Average Customer Review: 7 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 386,268 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Honest Look Paperback – 19 Nov 2010
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From the Back Cover
In becoming a scientist, Claire Cyrus hopes to escape the fate of her dead father, a brilliant but critically unsuccessful poet whose poverty and bitterness derailed her own strong talent for verse. Soon after moving from England to take up her first job in a start-up biotech company in the Netherlands, she finds herself an outcast in her strange new environment, shunned by her jealous colleagues and moving only on the fringes of the expatriate community. But when she makes an accidental discovery in the lab, her life will never be the same again.The Honest Look is a tale of passion, betrayal and a devastating secret that threatens to bring down careers, a company and a widely accepted scientific theory. Unfolding in the modern corporate laboratory, where the idealism of advancing knowledge and the uncompromising reality of profit margins exist in uneasy truce, this is a story of how people with various stakes in a common endeavour react when its integrity is called into question, and how these reactions can be shapedand warpedby denial, greed, hatred and love.
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My only quibble is not with the book itself but with the Kindle version: from time to time (perhaps 3-4 times in the book) a line of text seemed to get lost in the page transition.
The protagonist of "The Honest Look", Claire Cyrus (no relation of Miley I hope) is one of the straddlers. She has just completed a PhD in biology, but is more passionate about writing and reading poetry than about her science, which involves a monstrous proteomic analysis instrument, a machine with the size, complexity, and neediness of the Beckman model E ultracentrifuge from the 1960s (no, I'm not that old, but my PhD supervisor still used two of these in the 90s).
Adding to the culture shock is the fact that her first post-doctoral appointment, taking care of the first commercial specimen of that machine, is in a biotech start-up, where we have the corporate culture conflicting with her hitherto purely academic upbringing. A third cultural divide opens up as the company in question is based in the Netherlands, but most of the scientific staff members are Brits who migrated there with the scientific founders. Oh, and our heroine is bilingual, the child of a Spanish mother and British father.
Unlike Rohn's first lablit novel, "Experimental Heart", which had a thriller plot, this one is essentially a romance, so as a fifth binary we have two contrasting male specimens competing for the attention of our heroine, and naturally each has different views on the cultural conflicts listed above, so love also pulls her in different directions on these other issues of cultural identity.
With all those conflicting forces tearing her apart and cultural canyons to fall into, not to mention a serious moral dilemma arising from an unexpected scientific result, one does worry about Dr Cyrus a lot, which keeps the pages turning just as fast as a thriller plot. Rohn pulls out all the writerly stops to make the poetic sensibility of her heroine believable, and succeeds as far as I can discern from my vantage point between cultures (English poetry buffs may have their own opinions).
She is also very good at bringing the expat perspective on Amsterdam (where she lived herself for several years) and the surrounding lowlands to life. With my rather vague and informal knowledge of Dutch I loved the paragraph where one of the characters translates mundane everyday Dutch into Shakespearean English to illustrate the similarities. (I might have used this as a running gag, actually, for comic relief when the story gets tense.)
What I found less convincing was the use of Spanish - firstly, I don't understand why Claire, with Spanish and English and a love of words, doesn't really extend her love to Spanish, which in my ears is the more interesting and poetic language of the two. Then, the character called "Ramon" (rather than Ramón) lost his accent in more than one sense - the dialogues reported to have been held in Spanish don't sound like something translated from Spanish to me. Even some of the Spanish interjections (querida, Dios mio, por favor,) sound as though they had been translated from English, not glimpsed from a Spanish dialogue. I think with a language used so widely in popular culture (CSI Miami through to latin pop music) one can actually get away with longer snippets giving a more authentic impression.
Having said that, it's still a wonderful novel, and it addresses cultural conflicts that are very important to me and should be to a wider readership as well. So I hope it does find readers on all sides of these cultural divides, and thereby helps to bridge the gap between Snow's Two Cultures (and a few more).
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.
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