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Breathing on Glass by Jennifer Cryer

Rebecca Nesbit 6 July 2012

Lab life under the scope: detail from the cover

Many of us feel we are trying to move beyond the stereotype of mad scientists with beards, and Cryer certainly achieves this

Editor's note: This review contains a (relatively minor) spoiler.

In her debut novel (Little, Brown, 2012), former biochemist Jennifer Cryer draws on her experiences in the lab to construct a story of two scientists attempting to culture pure stem cells.

Rhea and Lewis seem tantalisingly close to the breakthrough they need to secure investment and bring their techniques closer to the clinic. They face the inevitable setbacks familiar to anyone who works in the lab – cell cultures dying mysteriously, for example – which makes for a realistic depiction of life as a molecular biologist.

Alongside their scientific trials, they have personal problems to face. Lewis is married to Rhea’s sister Amber, who is beautiful, passionate and definitely not a scientist. Amber’s life has been taken over by her infertility, and the book charts her progress through her treatment. She has the support of Lewis and Rhea, though the success of the treatment is something they want for Amber and not for themselves. This may be one of the reasons that Lewis and Rhea begin an affair, and it becomes clear that in many ways Lewis has more in common with Rhea than he does with his wife.

The pressure of a constant need for funding, which can dominate a scientist’s life, is well portrayed. Lewis has the added pressure that he is unable to keep Amber in the manner to which she is accustomed (she would like to quit her job to concentrate on starting a family), a fact which Lewis’s mother-in-law is keen to stress. For someone of my generation this kind of attitude can be hard to accept in the 21st century, but it did add strength to Lewis’s motivations.

There is little exploration of the ethical issues of stem cell therapies, although when they speak to a young girl who they hope could one day benefit, it certainly raises the issue of scientists not making bold promises. Patenting issues are also touched upon when it emerges that Lewis has used Amber’s cells without telling his colleagues, meaning she will appear on the patent.

Many of us feel we are trying to move beyond the stereotype of mad scientists with beards, and by telling the personal stories of two younger scientists, Cryer certainly achieves this. However, certain stereotypes about academic scientists are often true – their single-mindedness, the way their whole way of thinking is scientific, their complete belief in the importance of their work. Thus, portraying a realistic scientist can sometimes seem like portraying a cliché. It would be easy to alienate a reader by portraying a character with blinkered dedication to their science. To me, Cryer was able to pull this off because we also saw Rhea and Lewis through the eyes of Amber. In some ways Amber doesn’t take them too seriously, and recognises them as self-absorbed. In this way Cryer was able to provide us with a more accurate stereotype of a scientist without the reader completely losing sympathy for them.

I won’t divulge the twist at the end, which may come across as an afterthought which the reader isn’t fully prepared for. On the other hand, it could be seen as giving us that sweet feeling that every author surely aims to incite: ‘I should have seen that coming’.

Related information:

Read Jennifer Cryer's thoughts on science in fiction on, here.