The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Ever since my calendar has opened up, I am a woman on a mission - a mission to catch up on my 2016 reading goal of 24 books in a year. Goodreads seems to find great joy in reminding me that I'm behind on my reading challenge, but I have also found great joy in shoving my recent progress in its nose. 

My third book in July was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. In the 1950s, Henrietta Lacks, a black woman, had cells involuntarily taken from her as she was fighting cervical cancer. She unfortunately did not survive, but the cells that her doctors harvested - now referred to as HeLa cells - have flourished and helped scientists make great progress in medical and scientific research. Not only was Henrietta unaware of her cells being acquired, but her family was also left in the dark. The book details Henrietta/HeLa's life both before and after her death, the successes and failures encountered by those using her cells, and the lives of her husband and five children, mainly her youngest daughter Deborah. 

For those of you who have an interest in learning about HeLa cells and genetics and cell culture history, you will enjoy this book. For those of you who have a soft spot for human interest stories, you will enjoy this book. I have both, so for those reasons, I enjoyed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. However, I did not enjoy the author's insertion of herself into the story. Oftentimes it felt as if she was congratulating herself for being a good person by helping the Lacks family with this book, more so than it felt as if she was helping the Lacks family. The story of the Lacks family is a compelling one, and I truly sympathized with them. Their story could easily have been told - and even more compellingly, I might add - without Skloot's presence in the narrative. Perhaps her presence would have made sense had she encountered some sense of personal development from the journey. She did not, though, which exacerbates how unnecessary it was for her to be a character in the story. If you can overlook her intrusion, though, the story as a whole will keep you engaged until the very end. I just couldn't always overlook it, and it drew attention from the issues of race, medical ethics, and mental illness - major themes in the book that deserved more time and attention than did a description of what Skloot's regular wardrobe looked like, for example.

If you've read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks please let me know in the comments what you thought about it!

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