I wanted to love this book, I really did. My friends who suggested it loved it, and obviously other readers did, too...but I didn't. I thought the stoI wanted to love this book, I really did. My friends who suggested it loved it, and obviously other readers did, too...but I didn't. I thought the story of Henrietta's cervical cancer cells living 60+ years after she died horrifically from the disease--and used billions of times for medical/industrial/military testing--was fascinating and important. That her family lived in poverty while Henrietta's cells made others rich also is a great basis for a book. I jumped right in! The beginning was great, and Skloot was adept at turning biological and medical mumbo jumbo into reader-friendly, page-turning passages. That said, Skloot should have focused more on the history of biomedical ethics, and less on trying to wrangle Henrietta's impoverished, dysfunctional family on board.
Skloot's depiction of the African-American family, especially Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, was as uncomfortable as it was unnecessary. Skloot's concern that John Hopkins' medical community had exploited Henrietta's family by making money from her cells, unbeknownst to them, rang hollow as she nagged them for meetings and interviews to garner her own book deal. Sure, leading the family to a real understanding of just what it meant for Henrietta's cells to be alive (that there were NOT clones of her walking around), and them learning more about their institutionalized daughter/sister Elsie was a good thing--but all of that could have been accomplished without Skloot pulling readers through her muck...because she didn't do it well.
Just how uneducated and ignorant did Deborah need to sound to readers, and how often? Skloot's many stories of Deborah's skittish behavior and quotes using her dialect came off unsympathetic and offensive to me. At times, I felt I was watching a blackface minstrel or vaudeville show. But it wasn't about race. I would have felt the same if the family had been uneducated and white. I'm sure it's a fine line for an author to determine how much to sympathize with their character, especially when people of such poverty and ignorance are juxtaposed with a most-educated medical community. The component that seemed to be lacking was respect. Perhaps it's a tone, an inflection...whatever it is, Skloot ain't got it!
The best example I can give was when Skloot and Deborah attended a medical conference and Deborah began approaching strangers,introducing herself by saying something like, "I'm the daughter of the lady with the cells and this (Skloot) is my reporter." Writing about that scenario did nothing but set Deborah up for ridicule and make readers squirm with embarrassment for her lack of social skills and worldliness. It didn't advance any part of the story. There was no reason to convey it. Skloot was just reiterating how very unpolished Deborah was--and that wasn't what the book was supposed to be about.
Ultimately, I would compare the book to having a doctor who has no bedside manner. You're glad you know about the problem; you just wish the message had been delivered differently....more