Review of “The Girl Pretending to Read Rilke” by Barbara Riddle

This slim little novel is a coming of age story set in the Sixties.  It initially caught my fancy because Rilke is one of my favorite poets.  I found the book charming.  Bronwen, an undergraduate in a Portland, Oregon, college, flies to Boston for a summer internship in a molecular biology laboratory in Waltham.  She will also spend the summer with her boyfriend, Eric, who graduated the previous year in Portland and is now a graduate student in the same field at Harvard.

A graduate student named Felix is Bronwen’s supervisor, and after a somewhat intimidating first day, Bronwen settles into the routine of the lab and earns Felix’s respect for her skill and devotion.  But all is not well between Bronwen and Eric.  From the first meeting, its obvious that he’s very smart, narcissistic and only cares about Bronwen when they are in bed.  One of the features of the story that I really liked was the fact that most of the characters are aspiring scientists, and only one, Felix’s wife, has a PhD.

Because this is the Sixties, women are just beginning to appear in graduate departments in the sciences, and gender discrimination at all levels and in all forms is rampart.  As the story unfolds, we watch Bronwen bond intellectually with Felix while struggling to maintain the fiction that Eric loves her as much as she loves him, and possibly somewhat near as much as he loves himself.  Felix turns out to be typical of the ABD (all but degree) graduate student struggling to finish his dissertation so he and his wife can move on with their lives.  But his love of laboratory work and his devotion to research are perfectly in synch with Bronwen’s.  She’s spending long hours in the lab (sometimes with Felix at work alongside) and beginning to strike out on her own intellectually.  Eric shows some resentment that she’s too busy to join him and his friends in various pseudo-intellectual social activities.

Everything changes the instant Felix has to tell Bronwen her father has died.  Bronwen emerges from the summer back in Portland, a much wiser, more mature woman with an even stronger commitment to pursue a career in science and the promise of her first publication.  No earth-shaking scientific breakthroughs, and no overcharged romances, just a story about a young woman who gets firmly hooked on science and learns how to contribute to it, beautifully told in spare prose that evokes the stresses and desires that science imposes on its followers and the special burdens it inflicts on women who choose to join the ranks, especially fifty years ago.

While a close rereading might reveal some exceptions, I was struck with just how few words it takes Riddle to capture a moment, evoke a feeling or describe a lab procedure.  There’s an especially striking passage where she manages to explain in half a page the logic of Bronwen’s idea for an original procedure.  What follows is one of the best moments of the book as she carries her innovation to completion while distractions cascade past her in the lab.  This book with its whimsical title deserves its place on the LabLit List.  Although it focuses on the early formative years, it elegantly describes what motivates most scientists.

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