Laura's Reviews > The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
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's review
Jan 07, 2011

liked it
bookshelves: public-library, do-not-own, non-fiction, award-winner
Read in January, 2011

Fascinating and Thought-Provoking.

*Fantastically interesting subject!
One woman's cancerous cells are multiplied and distributed around the globe enabling a new era of cellular research and fueling incredible advances in scientific methodology, technology, and medical treatments. This strain of cells, named HeLa (after Henrietta Lacks their originator), has been amazingly prolific and has become integrated into advancements of science around the world (space travel, genome research, pharmaceutical treatments, polio vaccination, etc).
*Thought-Provoking Ethical Questions
This book makes you ponder ethical questions historically raised by the unfolding sequence of events and still rippling currently.
Ex. 1) Informed consent: Henrietta did not provide informed consent (not required in those days).
Ex. 2) Genetic rights/non-rights: her family (whose DNA also links to those cells) did not learn of the implications of her tissue sample until years later.
Ex. 3) Patents and profits for biologic material: zero profits realized by Henrietta or her descendants; multiple-millions in profits have been realized by individuals and corporations utilizing her genetic material.
*Biographical description of Henrietta and interviews with her family. The biographical nature of the book ensures the reader does not separate the science and ethics from the family. These are not abstract questions, impacts and implications. We're reading about actual, valuable people and historic events.

*Framework: the book is framed around the author's journey of writing the story and her interactions with Henrietta's family. I thought the author got in the way and would have preferred to have to read less of her journey and more coverage of the science involved and its ethical implications. I found myself distinctly not caring how many times the author circled the block or how many trips she made to Henrietta's birthplace.
*Lack of Clarity: By mid-point through the book, I was wishing the biographical approach was more refined and focused. The narrative swerved through the author's interest in various people as she encountered them along the way: Henrietta, Henrietta's immediate family, scientists, Henrietta's extended family, a neighborhood grocery store owner, a con artist, Henrietta's youngest daughter, Henrietta's oldest daughter, etc. Everything was a side dish; no particular biography satisfied as a main course.

Bottom Line:
This book won't join my 'to re-read' shelf...but has whetted my appetite for further exploration of this important woman, fascinating topic and intriguing ethical questions.

I was left wanting more:
-more detail surrounding the science involved,
-more coverage of past and present ethical implications
-a more refined biography of Henrietta, and
-a more focused look at the impact and implications of the HeLa cell strain line on Henrietta's descendants.

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02/05/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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Cranky I couldn't agree more! I enjoyed this book a great deal, and am glad I read it. But I felt it missed the mark in the ways you aptly described.

Randee ditto to the above

Christine Bax While I agree with your snopsis of the books strenghts I disagree with the idea that the author got in the way of the science. I felt like I was doing the research with the author and exploring the town of Clover with her or driving through Lacks Town, or sitting in the hotel room waiting to talk to the family. I felt she took us on her journey and I loved that!
To each his own I guess!

Carol I agree completely about the weaknesses. The author did get in the way of the science. More science, please, less process about how to do journalism.

Rachel great, on-target critiques

Anna I could not have said it better myself. Great review!

Beth Caruso A great review of this book.

message 8: by Cac (new) - rated it 4 stars

Cac I understand what you mean about not being as interested in the author's struggle with trying to talk to the family and how it can seem that she was complaining or whining about the hoops she had to jump through. I think Skloot was trying to express the psycho-social problems of the African American community not trusting the medical field and industry. That within itself was a large part of the HeLa cell's story.

message 9: by kim (new) - rated it 3 stars

kim I couldn't agree more about the author getting in the way of the story. I mentioned this in my review, too.

Nina Gayle very thorough and well written review

Patti Albaugh I like the structure of your review. Very thorough. You give concrete examples for the basis of each opinion.

Krista Great review!

message 13: by Tomáš (new) - added it

Tomáš Wünsch +1

message 14: by Troy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Troy Don't understand... You say you wouldn't add it to your "to read" shelf. Are you saying we shouldn't add it?

Stacey This is a perfect review of the book. I agree completely with every word.

Gillian Ray-barruel I completely agree. Fascinating story, but the author's interjections about how she was feeling annoyed me at times. Very glad I read it. Also very glad I borrowed this from the library and didn't buy it.

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