In a world of few certainties, should we let intuition be our guide? Equally, how much faith should we place in the hands of others, even those we think we know the best? These are the intriguing questions driving Allegra Goodman's thought-provoking new novel exploring the human side of the high-stakes world of experimental research. Exchanging the close-knit Jewish community of her National Book Award-nominated KAATERSKILL FALLS for the collegially cutthroat scientific community, Goodman shifts her focus from religious and spiritual issues to exploring faith of a different kind --- faith in others, faith in ourselves, and most of all, faith in moral certitude.
Just as the protagonist in Goodman's previous novel PARADISE PARK was obsessed by a quest for spiritual truth, INTUITION's single-minded cancer researcher Robin Drecker becomes obsessed with seeking truth of the scientific and moral kind at the prestigious Philpott Institute where she works alongside her self-assured boyfriend Cliff. Hungry for grant money --- and therefore in desperate need of results --- their small Cambridge research lab is quick to jump on the groundbreaking new findings demonstrated by Cliff's experiments with a promising viral strain that seems to bring about remission in cancerous tumors.
Lab co-director Sandy Glass, a brash oncologist and "evangelist of the most remarkable sort," insists on plunging ahead to herald the discovery with great public fanfare while his more circumspect partner, the rigorous and no-nonsense scientist Marion Mendelssohn, advocates a more cautious approach pending further experimentation. But Glass's contagious enthusiasm and relentless persistence eventually wins out, and the scientific world is set ablaze with news of the stunning breakthrough.
Meanwhile, Robin's instincts lead her to question Cliff's sensational results and make a disquieting discovery, but her concerns are summarily dismissed by Mendelssohn as little more than professional jealousy. With no outlet for her increasing uneasiness as she becomes ostracized from a scientific community that sticks together at all costs, her initial whispers of doubt blow into a force so destructive that it threatens to flatten everyone in its path --- including Robin herself.
As the story unfolds from four contrasting yet equally sympathetic points of view, the shifting narration continually casts doubt on what the "truth" really is, building up to an agonizing crescendo of suspense. The cut-and-dried world of science was never so ambiguously enthralling, a feat Goodman manages to accomplish by breaking down the field's impersonal facade to reveal the human side lurking underneath. With remarkable acuity, she illuminates the intricate, behind-the-scenes pressures and protocols involved in the high-stakes world of scientific research, portraying to powerful effect the often insidious --- and unavoidable --- influences of money, politics and power.
Against this weighty backdrop, Goodman brings to vivid life the individual struggles, triumphs and disappointments of her characters who, despite being held to different standards as scientists, are fallible human beings trying to make the best decisions they can given the circumstances they are faced with. Just like anyone else, they are capable of rushing to judgment when their objectivity becomes clouded by personal agendas and external forces.
Nowhere does Goodman render this particular human frailty more poignantly than in the compelling bond she creates between lab directors Marion Mendelssohn and Sandy Glass. The two larger-than-life beacons of scientific reasoning are a fascinating study in contrasts who share an unusually strong platonic attachment based on mutual admiration and fierce loyalty --- in spite of, or perhaps because of, their stark personal differences. Their strengths and weaknesses seem to complement and complete each other, at least until the controversy over Cliff's work engulfs their lab and Marion slowly realizes that she may have put too much faith in Sandy and not enough in herself. Conversely, Sandy experiences a lesson in humility by learning to accept his own limitations and put faith in things that are beyond his power.
A novel about science with heart, INTUITION illustrates the ways that even incontrovertible facts can be plagued by ambiguity. With penetrating insight into the human soul, it proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that any truth --- whether derived from intuition, reason, or empirical evidence --- is meaningless until we're ready to be true to ourselves.
Reviewed by Joni Rendon on February 28, 2006