I know very few women scientists. Well to be honest, just two and one of those is a virtual friend met through blogging. Being pigeonholed as an arts person early on no doubt contributed to that but the fact is there are still far more male scientists than women. Arlene Heyman’s debut novel, Artifact, follows biologist Lottie from her ‘50s childhood through to the ‘80s, still faced with professional barriers thanks to her gender despite a career grounded in careful research.
Science has always been Lottie’s passion, at first supported by her increasingly irascible father then by her adored grandmother. She falls in love with her childhood friend, the school’s star football player, enthusiastically pursuing her interest in anatomy with his happy cooperation with predictable then tragic results. When Charlie wins a sports scholarship to Michigan, Lottie goes with him then to Texas where she finds herself a job as a lab technician. Her career begins to take off just as his is scuppered by an accident which floors him leaving Lottie stretched thin, juggling childcare with a job which increasingly consumes her. She finally has her feet on the road to the career she’s always hoped for, eventually leaving Charlie behind and taking their daughter with her. Both her personal and professional lives are challenging. Relationships break down or never quite get off the ground. There’s the sheer grind of single parenthood and society’s expectations of motherhood to contend with. She must jump many more hurdles than her male colleagues, but Lottie is determined. By the end of the novel, married for a second time with two more children and a stepdaughter, Lottie has faced a good deal of difficulty and continues to do so but she has hope for a future in both realms of her life.
What do you mean, ‘no, no’? Your Leonard Cohen is a songwriter. Mine’s a physicist.
Heyman’s novel opens in 1984 with Lottie intent on rebutting the referees who have disputed her findings, reluctantly leaving her work to return to the family she loves dearly, a scene which neatly encapsulates the dichotomy of her life. She’s a smartly realised character – bright yet naïve, determined and single-minded yet open and loving with her family. Heyman handles her subject lightly lacing it with humour but never losing sight of the fact that being a scientist for Lottie is very much harder than it is for her male colleagues, unencumbered by childcare and treated with more respect. She brings her novel full circle back to 1984 in a heartrending incident which echoes the points made throughout. I loved Lottie’s smart, acerbic responses to her interviewer’s constant attempts to slot her into a domestic role in the final section which consists of a typescript of a radio interview. They summed up this absorbing novel’s message beautifully.
Bloomsbury Publishing: London 9781526619402 288 pages Hardback