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The DNA of You and Me

Review

The DNA of You and Me

Living near Boston and working in Cambridge, I have a fair number of friends and acquaintances who are research scientists and engineers. At times, when I’ve encountered a novel set in this world, I’ve been tempted to recommend it to them. But I usually have second thoughts, since “science” in contemporary fiction typically serves as set dressing or metaphor. With Andrea Rothman’s debut, THE DNA OF YOU AND ME, I have no such hesitations. Written by a trained research scientist whose own work mirrors the research conducted by her characters, it is the rare work of fiction that doesn’t dumb down scientific topics for readers and examines the drama inherent in scientific research and discovery.

The book opens with Emily, a bioinformatician, arriving at a fictional New York City university fresh from her graduate studies at the University of Illinois. Emily boldly approached her new advisor, Justin, at a conference months earlier, and impressed him enough with her perspectives on his research to offer her a coveted postdoc position on the spot. The lab’s research focuses on genetic links between the brain and the olfactory bulb, with the eventual goal of finding gene therapies for the many disorders that result in the loss of the sense of smell.

"Written by a trained research scientist whose own work mirrors the research conducted by her characters, it is the rare work of fiction that doesn’t dumb down scientific topics for readers and examines the drama inherent in scientific research and discovery."

When she actually arrives in the lab, however, Emily encounters the cold shoulder from nearly everyone, especially two other postdocs, Allegra and Aeden, whose workspace is adjacent to her own. It turns out that Justin --- who has a history of pitting his researchers against one another --- has brought Emily on board to tackle the same problem that Allegra and Aeden are investigating, but to approach it from a different angle. Unsurprisingly, they are deeply resentful and distrustful, especially when Emily appears to be making progress with her more data-driven, theoretical approach, while their laborious gene manipulation has had disappointing results.

Soon Emily makes a bold decision that results in her working more closely with Aeden directly. After learning that they both have personal reasons for pursuing this line of research, the two start a furtive sexual relationship. However, what each of them wants out of the relationship varies, and both are guilty of using the other for various reasons, both personal and professional.

Although Emily and Aeden's love affair brings the novel plenty of intrigue and sexiness, the story’s real strengths lie in its portrayals of characters who are awkward, lonely and driven as much by their passion for work as for each other. Emily, raised largely in isolation by a single father, has a difficult time relating to other people and an impossible time imagining a conventionally domestic future for herself. Things come to a head during a horribly uncomfortable dinner at Aeden’s parents’ home, after which she is forced to acknowledge, “I’m not cut out for that kind of life, the one you will eventually want to have.”

As a postdoc, Rothman herself studied the neurobiology of olfactory processes, and the scientific details she includes here are numerous, plausible and grounded in actual research. She trusts her readers to stick with her through her admirably clear explanations of genetic processes, and the reward is a fully realized portrayal of a working research lab. Above all, she effectively conveys the drama and loneliness that are inherent in the process of scientific discovery (with or without an overwrought advisor like Justin): “My father once said to me, shortly before he died, that a discovery is nothing but a moment. The moment when a truth, otherwise obscured, reveals itself, and your eyes are the only pair of eyes in the world to see it, and your mind the only mind to comprehend the truth and certainty of what you see.”

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 15, 2019

The DNA of You and Me
by Andrea Rothman

  • Publication Date: March 12, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow
  • ISBN-10: 0062857819
  • ISBN-13: 9780062857811