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Book Review: “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot

Hey guys!

Please forgive my absence from the blog, these past few weeks have been 51Nsis9xu5Lcrazy-busy (and I’m not even in school right now!) Amongst other things, I’ve been all over Instagram with a madness I can’t even describe except to say: I’M ADDICTED. Whew. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know about a great book I finished yesterday. If you just want a really quick review of this awesome book, check me out on Instagram at: allison_readage and if you don’t have time to click over there, here’s what you’ll find on Instagram:

I just finished this wonderful book and gave it 5 stars on Goodreads. There was never any doubt it was going to be rated so highly; it was like a great cup of coffee–good to the very last page. If you haven’t read this true story yet, you need to know how important it is! It’s the beautiful, real-life story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman who suffered from a particularly aggressive form of cervical cancer, and the amazing account of her truly immortal life through biology, science and technology. I’m not going to lie, you kinda have to believe in a Higher Power once you read this book! Science doesn’t explain everything, and the unexpected power in this woman’s biology will pretty much blow your mind. It’s a complicated story of: cancer, science, technology, race, medical ethics, poverty, history, etc. It’s basically a book you cannot explain away, it’s so strangely wonderful that it almost reads more like fiction than non-fiction! Simply…awesome! Cannot recommend enough.

The longer, spoiler-free review is as follows:

I’m sure many of you have already read this book, as it was published in early 2010 and made headlines as a bestselling piece of medical/science nonfiction. Rebecca Skloot is an award-winning science writer who became interested in the story of Henrietta Lacks (known as HeLa in the medical/scientific community) when she took a biology course at sixteen that changed her outlook on the world of science forever. Her instructor wrote the name HENRIETTA LACKS as he was discussing cell culture and Skloot was anxious to investigate. Her HeLa fascination started there, and continued throughout her graduate school studies in writing, as she contemplated researching and writing about Henrietta Lacks. Eventually, she put pen to paper and brought HeLa’s story to light.

The book is a wonderfully written, and in my opinion, smartly-paced piece of nonfiction. It does a masterful job of detailing Skloot’s heavy involvement in the HeLa chaos that resulted from an unethical medical treatment on a poverty-stricken black woman from Virginia in 1951. If you decide to read this book, (and I really hope you do), in the first half of the narrative you will meet a lovely, sweet woman named Henrietta Lacks and discover that she is suffering from a particularly aggressive form of cervical cancer. Diagnosed at the tender age of 30, Henrietta’s cancer spreads rapidly and cuts short her life in a tragic flash, leaving behind a husband, five children, and surrounding family members who eventually live in the upsetting wake of Henrietta’s undisclosed, yet amazing contribution to science.

(I dislike book reviews that give blow-by-blow, page-by-page details of the book; I want you to read the book, not just this review, so I refrain here from delving too deeply into the scientific material you will find in the book.) I do want to reassure any ambivalent readers that this is an incredibly entertaining science book, without being overly scientific or stuffy in any way! It is very accessible to readers of all scientific knowledge, and will most definitely appeal to people who know absolutely nothing about cellular biology and cell cultures. (It explains things along the way). I started this book hoping the information would not go right over my head, and I’m pleased to say that none of the concepts escaped me intellectually. From a scientific perspective, Skloot has written an informative history of the HeLa cells, and that alone makes this book rewarding.

However, I must say that the human element of the book is the author’s number one achievement. Meeting the Lacks family members, one by one, and learning of their daily lives and coping mechanisms was even more interesting to me than the amazing science behind the HeLa phenomenon. Once you absorb and process the initial shock in the first half of the book of how radical HeLa cells truly are, you begin to settle into a second half of the narrative that just grabs your heart and doesn’t let go until the last page. Skloot skips back and forth in time, and it was an interesting way to tell the story. We have a few chapters detailing events in 1951 when Henrietta was alive and in the thick of her illness, and then we flash forward to 1999 and onward to events in the author’s life as she makes connections with the Lacks family and begins her very hands-on research. (Personally, I didn’t find the structure detracting in any way; I felt that it kept the HeLa history very rooted and upfront in the successive decades and chapters, therefore not allowing the reader to lose sight of the very real woman and family behind the science and medical discoveries.)

Speaking further of the sincerely human element of the book, Deborah Lacks was my absolute favorite part of the book! (I won’t go so far as to say that she overshadowed her mother in the narrative, but I admit that she really did manage to catapult me that much further into the story). The initial portrait of Henrietta Lacks begins the story, and when her daughter Deborah steps in later in the book, you really get the sense that Deborah is trying her damndest to resolve the chaos and confusion that factor so strongly in the book. Henrietta is no longer around to speak for herself, but her cells do much of the “talking” in this book, and Deborah’s voice rings just as true and sincere as her mother’s biological determinism.

I’m going to wrap up here, because the longer I spend on this review, the longer you might spend reading about it instead of picking up the book! I strongly recommend that you find a copy of the audiobook of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot narrated by Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin. I read along and listened to this awesome recording and am so glad I did. I feel like the characters really came alive with this audiobook narration. The voices are very expressive, and I think you will enjoy it!

5/5 stars for “HeLa” five-stars

Please let me know if this review has encouraged you to pick up this book! If you have read it, please leave your thoughts in the comments!

As I finish up this review on this rather warm October afternoon, I want to wish everyone out there an upcoming Happy Halloween and if I don’t see you before then on here, BOO!!!

Forever Between Pages,

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