Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Narrator: Casandra Campbell
Published: 2011 Pages: 400
Audio Duration: 12 hrs, 30 min
Why I Listened: I first listened a year and a half ago after seeing a lot of praise for the book. I became especially curious when my then freshman sister was assigned the book as part of University of Arkansas's freshman reading program. I re-listened recently for book club.
Thoughts in General: I always struggle with audiobook reviews because my mind works visually and textually. When reading I tend to focus on words and how smoothly they flow or how lyrical they feel but with audio I am either more forgiving or less aware of the words that I am hearing. That said, I don't have much to comment on in the way of the actual writing in this book. I've heard that Skloot uses dialect, but this was seamless and very effectively done on the audio. Anyway.
I tend to think about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in two separate pieces—the science/history of the cells and the personal story behind the cells. I was not familiar with he-la cells or Henrietta Lacks prior to publication of this book and the idea of cell culturing is one that fascinates me and honestly is mostly beyond my grasp. Skloot does a wonderful job of explaining the importance of cell culturing and how Henrietta Lack's cells fit into this corner of science. While Skloot goes into great detail, it does not mean that I still have a clear understanding other than it ethically questionable and at the same time essential to medical advancement. I appreciate Skloot's attention to detail as well as the historical context she provides in relation to the sticky and tricky subject of cell culturing.
While we would not have a story without the HeLa cells, the true draw of this book for me was not the science and history of cell culturing. Where The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks shines is with the personal stories and history of the Lacks family. Henrietta was a young woman when she died of cervical cancer and a huge part of this book is what happened to her five children after her passing as well as how her family handled the surprise that their mother's cells lived on and will continue to live on. I'm not sure if Skloot set out to tell the story of the Lacks family but they become an integral part of the story, especially as Skloot and Henrietta's youngest daughter Deborah bond throughout the course of Skloot's research for the book.
We had a lot of discussion in my book club over Skloot's right to tell Henrietta's story as well some of the ethics of journalism that may have surfaced—specifically whether the Lacks family was exploited in the process. Some of the members were annoyed with Deborah and some of the other family members but they also wondered whether their story after Henrietta needed to be told. I'm not sure but I do believe that Skloot writes with sincerity and that by telling their story the reader gains a full understanding of the human impact this case has had on real people. It is an incredible story that is heartbreaking and at times difficult to listen to. I know that I've talked much more about the actual content of The Immortal Life than I normally do, but this was a rich and multilayered book that I believe deserves attention.
Bottom Line: We had really low attendance at this particular book club session and I think it was because people were turned off by the scientific nature of the book. Non-fiction about some cells they'd never heard of: I say blah to them. But the folks who did show up were all amazed at how much they enjoyed reading about the story of the he-la cells as well as the life of Henrietta Lacks and her family. Don't be put off by the technical nature of the book. This is an important story that deserves to be heard and read.
A Note on the Audio: Cassandra Campbell is the perfect choice of narrator to help continue to breathe life into the story of Henrietta Lacks. Her pacing was well-timed and easy to follow, but what really sold her narration for me was the way that she allowed emotion into her tone. This mostly worked when something especially negative or tragic was occurring in the narrative and I ached at the sadness in her voice, but at the same time this never feels like manipulation. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was the audiobook that made me realize that I could fall in love with audiobooks. It's a wonderful way to experience the story and I highly recommend.
Have you read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks? Why not?! ;)