Artifact by Arlene Heyman: ‘Too smart for a girl’

Cover image for Artifact by Arlene HeymanI 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

14 thoughts on “Artifact by Arlene Heyman: ‘Too smart for a girl’”

  1. Pingback: Most Anticipated Releases of the Second Half of 2020 | Bookish Beck

  2. This post really made me think. As a child in the 50s I was fascinated by anything to do with astronomy and physics but I’ve ended up with a career in the arts (albeit that my research work is very analytical and precise in nature). What happened there?

    1. Well-meaning but ill-informed career advice, if my experience in the ’70s is anything to go by, Ann. The worst of it is, I’m not sure how much has changed.

      1. I’ve been thinking even more about this, my Vice Chancellor, who was a physicist, once told me that I thought more like a physicist than anybody he’d ever met in the arts departments and my branch of linguistics uses the terms particle, field and wave just as a quantum physicist would. Something was clearly fighting to get out!

  3. Is the virtual friend me? I’m going to have to read this novel – so many echoes.

    In my first job in 1981 in the materials div of an Electronics giant, I was the only woman engineer amongst about 50 blokes and it stayed that way for the 3 yrs I was there, with no chance of progression. The year after I started, they gave that year’s male graduate intake a lot more money than I was getting, so I stamped my foot until I got a big pay raise. I stuck out like a sore thumb, but ironically had got the job purely because I’d gone to Imperial which outranked other applicants.
    Then I moved to an American multinational and again there was a definite glass ceiling at sr mgt level on the technical side, although there was headroom underneath.

    1. Yes! I thought it would be right up your street as I read it, Annabel. I’d love to think you could tell me it’s an entirely different story for young women scientists these days but I suspect that’s not the case. I’m glad you found some headroom, at least, Annabel.

  4. In my experience, you really have to want a career in the sciences if you’re a woman – or at least that was the case when I was in school. It’s so easy to slip out of it into something else. I have a good friend who started out a chemist and turned into a full-time artist. I don’t think she regrets a thing, though.
    This sounds like a possibility for LW!

    1. A not uncommon story, I imagine, but I’m glad it worked out well for your friend.

      Actually, it would make a brilliant choice for LW – two marriages for the price of one!

  5. buriedinprint

    The switch to a typescript at the end sounds like a nice touch. I think I’d enjoy this one. (The typescript thing reminds me of something, but i can’t put my proverbial finger on it…maybe Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown…but I think it’s another book I’ve got in my mind, although his was very good–and funny!)

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