Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot

Doctors took her cells without asking. Those cells never died. They launched a medical revolution and a multimillion-dollar industry. More than twenty years later, her children found out. Their lives would never be the same.

I picked this up in the library almost a month ago, and still hadn't read it. After renewing it once, I finally picked it up, and I couldn't be more glad. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman whose cells were harvested by doctors during the course of her treatment for cervical cancer. After Henrietta's death, those cells multiplied prolifically and have been used in a multitude of laboratories around the world. Skloot follows Henrietta's life, death, and her family's journey through their discovery of what Henrietta's cells meant to the scientific world.

While I enjoy nonfiction, I don't read nearly as much of it as I do fiction because it's generally more difficult for me to find nonfiction that I can thoroughly enjoy. However, this was not at all a problem with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. On the back of the book, a Booklist starred review is quoted as saying that Skloot writes with "a novelist's artistry, a biologist's expertise, and the zeal of an investigative reporter." This short quote just about sums up my experience with Skloot's writing. This book captivated me and kept me reading just as much as a good novel, while still remaining journalistic and clearly nonfiction. Rebecca Skloot manages to strike a perfect balance between style and substance. This balance, however, is not the main reason I enjoyed the book - Henrietta Lacks' story is simply fascinating, and I'm stunned that it has never been written about in such detail before. Again, a quote from the back of the book (this time from Ted Conover) says it perfectly: "This is exactly the sort of story that books were made to tell - thorough, detailed, quietly passionate, and full of revelation." I couldn't describe it better.


  1. I have seen so many positive reviews for this one but I had no idea it was non-fiction! I'll have to check that one out, it sounds fasinating.

  2. I actually had no idea it was non-fiction either, until I saw it in a bookstore and picked it up to look at it.

  3. I appreciate that this was a tale not just of Ms. Lacks, but of her family and the author as well, with fascinating excursions into the world of science and the often unfortunate sociology of the twentieth century. I found the family engrossingly human, presented with all their beauty and warts and in their own voices. There are heroes and villains among the scientists, legal system, and unrequited gene and tissue donors, plus the suspense of a good mystery--how will this or that situation work out? What will happen to this or that character? Hence the all night reading. I love that in a book. Decades of events braided together like a good hair weave, too. Wow.