Theory of no evolution

Songs of the Humpback Whale by Jodi Picoult

Steve Caplan 9 December 2012

Fluke? Twenty years and same old stereotypes

Obsessed workaholics, with complete dedication to their research at the cost of all else – including family – seems to be the standard for a scientific researcher

Not too long ago, within these very virtual pages, I reviewed author Jodi Picoult’s new book, Lone Wolf. How exciting, an excellent new novel, and no less important, about a scientist! Another best-selling author, joining the likes of Allegra Goodman, Barbara Kingsolver, Thomas Pynchon and others, who has begun to write about scientists.

To my chagrin, I found that I’d made an inaccurate assessment – something we scientists do not like to do. As it happens, Ms. Picoult’s very first novel, Songs of the Humpback Whale, published exactly twenty years ago, was also a lab lit novel featuring a marine biologist as one of the main characters.

All this led me to ponder: do we now possess a unique tool – a historical window – to determine how this talented author’s perception of scientists has changed in the twenty years between the publication of her two lab lit novels? Or more accurately (hint, hint), has it changed at all? Needless to say, rife with curiosity, I rushed to acquire a copy of Songs of the Humpback Whale.

I found Songs of the Humpback Whale – described as “A Novel in Five Voices” – to be less compelling than Ms. Picoult’s fair-sized list of other published books. Perhaps this is not surprising, as it was her first novel, and many authors improve dramatically over time. This is not to say that the story wasn’t interesting; but in comparison to the other novels she has written (and I’ve read most of them – she sets a high standard), this one is simply not on the same outstanding level.

Of the five narratives, the story begins with the most central character, Jane, who is fleeing from her San Diego home together with her 15-year-old daughter, Rebecca, for the second time in ten years. Jane’s husband is the famous whale biologist Dr. Oliver Jones, and he is determined to track down his family and bring them home. Much of the novel follows this cross-country adventure, as Jane navigates her way towards her beloved brother in the New England area.

The novel is not light reading, and deals with a variety of issues from child abuse to relationships and parental responsibilities. But I found many parts to be lacking in believability and credibility. For example, Jane’s brother Joley directs her from San Diego through a series of letters sent to post offices in towns en route to the East Coast – something that really doesn’t make a lot of sense, even for 1992. Then there is the plane crash that happened when Rebecca was about four years old. Plane crashes do occur, but my concern is not with incorporating that into the narrative. It’s rather I doubt that Jane would send her daughter alone (I repeat, as a four year-old) on a flight from Boston to San Diego. That’s a lot harder to swallow, and casts further doubt on the build-up of Jane as an all-loving and doting mother.

An additional complication in the story is the timeline. Purposefully gliding back-and-forth, from the cross-country journey in a non-chronological fashion, to the apple orchards of New England, or to childhood events and some in San Diego, at times I felt frustrated trying to piece together the order in which the events occurred. This would be even more difficult for a reader without a firm grasp of US geography, including the Midwest states.

Nonetheless, this is bona fide lab lit. Although there are only several scenes depicting Dr. Oliver Jones at work as a biologist, they are well described and of interest. More importantly is what we, the readers, can glean of Ms. Picoult’s view of scientists twenty years ago, well before she described the highly obsessive wolf biologist, Luke Warren, in Lone Wolf. So what do we encounter? We see a scientist who is completely obsessed with his research to an almost identical degree to that of Luke in Lone Wolf.

When Jane’s brother Joley discusses Oliver, he says:

Jane always knew she wanted Oliver. The rest of us just couldn’t understand why… Sam, you gotta see this guy. He’s your classic scientist, you know? In a fog the whole day, then he sees his daughter, and he’s lucky if he can remember her name. Talks and talks about these fucking tapes he makes of whale songs –

Not a very flattering description – being so obsessed about work as to forget one’s own child’s name. That’s about as bad a reputation as a scientist can have. Well, perhaps it’s one step up from the evil genius scientists portrayed in Hollywood, but that’s not saying much.

In a different passage, Rebecca reminisces about the time her father wanted to cook breakfast in bed for her mother Jane on Mother’s Day. She notes:

He woke me up to ask about my mother’s favorite type of eggs and I looked at him as if he were crazy. He was married to her after all. Didn’t he know she doesn’t eat eggs?

In conclusion, Ms. Picoult’s impression of scientists does not appear to have changed much in the past twenty years. Obsessed workaholics, with complete dedication to their research at the cost of all else – including family – seems to be the standard for a scientific researcher. Ms. Picoult’s books have evolved and improved greatly over the years, but her scientist characters have remained stagnant.

Is this a fair depiction of scientists? Overall, I do not think so. But who am I to judge – I’m biased.