Saturday, May 25, 2013

Book Club: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is the true story of a woman (Henrietta Lacks) who died in the 1950s and what was done with the cells taken from her cervix before she died of cervical cancer. HeLa cells (as they're called in the medical and scientific communities) have been used to study everything from polio to atom bombs. Her family first found out over twenty years after scientists and doctors began to study HeLa cells, and after many bad experiences with doctors, reporters, and others, they were wary to talk to Skloot about their experiences and their memories of Henrietta. Once they realized that Skloot wanted to learn about Henrietta and HeLa cells for some of the same reasons they did, however, they helped her discover things she never expected.

First Impression: I like the comfortable way in which Skloot writes. She knows Henrietta's story inside-and-out. She's been studying it for a good chunk of her life. I'm not a very scientific person, so this is an unusual book for me, but I'm finding the technical side of the book interesting as well.

Conclusion: I listened to the Random House Audio unabridged version, which was read by Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin. Having two narrators provided for good contrast between Skloot's words and those she recorded from the Lacks family and friends. I have never been very good at science in school. So when I say I enjoyed this novel, you'll know one of two things: 1) not much science was involved, or 2) everything scientific was fully explained and well-integrated with the other parts of the story. The second one is true of Skloot's book. She finds a really great balance between the story of the HeLa cells and the story of the Lacks family. Obviously, the discovery that HeLa cells were being grown and sold for profit over twenty years after Henrietta's death was a huge blow to the family. They weren't even told enough to know how they felt about it for a long time. Skloot recognized that their story played a big part in the book she wanted to write, and she fit it all together seamlessly. The writing style itself has a good storytelling quality for those of us who are used to reading fiction. Another thing I was really glad the author didn't overlook was straightforward organization of the book. Skloot set it across a timeline, starting with Henrietta's childhood and ending with her own book being published. She also clearly stated where we were on the timeline when there was a shift, which is something I've sadly missed in many nonfiction books I've read. I expected to be bored by this book, but I wasn't at all. I would definitely recommend The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, even if you don't read very much nonfiction or know very much about science and cells.

This is a book I read for the book club that I attend in person. I'm working on some tweaks and also some big changes for the blog, so keep your eyes open! Also, if you have any suggestions, please feel free to share. I don't just write these reviews for myself!


  1. I heard of this book when it first came out, but never read any real reviews until now. Definitely sounds interesting!

    As for your blog, I find tags to be really useful.