The story of Henrietta Lacks’ life is one that needed to be told – that much is clear. It is gripping both from a medical ethics and a human-interest perspective, and thus appeals to a large audience. Rebecca lays out the basics of cancer and tissue research in a clear, organized fashion that makes it easy to learn. That being said, I would only recommend The Immortal Life to anyone curious about the story or to those used to reading pop or heavily emotive novels; in the company of literature lovers, I would have to hold my tongue.
Rebecca Skloot maintains a relatively healthy balance between the facts and human emotion for about half the book, but after that the scale dips severely in the later direction. Although I don’t think that the Lacks family should have been removed from the narrative, their suffering is so easy and obvious to feel that the reader is simply oppressed by it. Their plight is so apparent that it almost feels flat – one wonders if there is anything else to the characters besides horrible family lives and feelings of betrayal. Do they ever hope? Do they have hobbies or quirks? Do they remember anything personal about Henrietta at all? Although the book is nominally about Henrietta Lacks, she, like her family, never actually attains the well-rounded, complex feel that real people have.
Beverage: Between the sometimes-gruesome facts and the harrowing drama, you might want to try something nice and easy to sip, like hot chocolate with lots of whipped cream.
Reminds me of… although a non-fiction book, The Immortal Life reminded me more of emotional bestsellers like The Art of Racing in the Rain than other nonfiction works like Salt.
Note on media: Since every library copy of the book in Boston had about sixty holds on it, I had to settle for the audio book edition. Although the audio book comes with the usual foibles of its media – no easy way to page back to a particular spot and a required twelve-hour time commitment – the voice acting is fantastic. I have heard people complain about the use of dialect in the p-book, saying that it is difficult to read or makes the family sound unintelligent, but hearing the voices simply makes the dialogue feel rich and unique. If you do choose to read it, I would recommend the audio version.