Book: Her Hidden Genius
Author: Marie Benedict
Narrator: Nicola Barber
BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Rosalind and Ursula discuss Rosalind’s research.
Content Warnings: Cancer, misogyny, hospital and medical content, infidelity, sexism, death
I’d never read anything by Marie Benedict before this year, but this book was mentioned on someone’s blog last year as a 2022 ARC that they’d enjoyed, and as I’m always one for books which shine a spotlight on forgotten women of history (and have been indignant about the treatment of Rosalind Franklin ever since we studied DNA in GCSE Biology!), I thought it would be something I’d really love. Sadly, it didn’t quite live up to my expectations, it was quite dry and lacked emotion, and it read more like a biography than a novel? Here is a short synopsis of the book:
Rosalind Franklin has always been an outsider―brilliant, but different. Whether working at the laboratory she adored in Paris or toiling at a university in London, she feels closest to the science, those unchanging laws of physics and chemistry that guide her experiments. When she is assigned to work on DNA, she believes she can unearth its secrets.
Rosalind knows if she just takes one more X-ray picture―one more after thousands―she can unlock the building blocks of life. Never again will she have to listen to her colleagues complain about her, especially Maurice Wilkins who’d rather conspire about genetics with James Watson and Francis Crick than work alongside her.
Then it finally happens―the double helix structure of DNA reveals itself to her with perfect clarity. But what unfolds next, Rosalind could have never predicted.
So as I mentioned at the top of the review, one of my biggest problems with this book was that it’s meant to be historical fiction but it read more like a biography than it did a novel. It’s always tricky when working with real people in historical fiction, because obviously you want to remain true to the facts of their life, but it is possible to do that in a way that works for fiction. I think the big issue here, which made it feel more like a biography than a novel, is the way it was written. Benedict’s writing is very dry and matter of fact, and lacked emotion and I think it’s that emotional connection that was missing for me, that would have made it feel more like a novel and less like a biography. It’s told from Rosalind’s 1st person POV and yet even when she was saying she was stressed or upset or scared, I didn’t feel that from the writing.
The book was also a little slow paced, it only really picked up when Rosalind arrived back in London and started working at Kings, and the real work on DNA began, the whole first half when she was in Paris, whilst I’m sure necessary for the build-up, felt like a prelude to the real story.
I did love the narrator, I’ve listened to a few books narrated by Nicola Barber (the Stalking Jack The Ripper series by Keri Mansicalco) & I found her a very engaging narrator when I listened to those, it was the same here.
The scientific jargon I will admit did go kind of over my head, but I was very impressed with the amount of research that Benedict had clearly done into both Franklin the woman and her research, she clearly knows her stuff!
I did think Benedict captured Franklin very well, she portrays her as a very nuanced person, she’s not afraid to capture her flaws (like her bluntness, perfectionist tendencies, confrontational nature) but also showed her dedication, her loyalty to her friends, her love of nature and her passion for science, so often women are portrayed as either saints or sinners, and I think Benedict did a really good job of capturing Rosalind as a multi-dimensional human being.
The side characters however did not feel as well fleshed out, we meet a lot of people in Rosalind’s laboratories both in Paris and London, and whilst we do get a broad strokes sense of what her colleagues were like, I wish they’d been developed a little more as that would have helped give some of her friendships a bit more depth. I also would have liked it we’d been able to spend a bit more time with her Birkbeck colleagues as her relationships with them didn’t feel massively fleshed out.
Starting the story at the lab in Paris did feel like we were kind of getting dropped in Franklin’s story in the middle, whilst I wouldn’t have expected to be taken from Rosalind’s birth right through to her death (especially since this book largely focused on her scientific work), it would have been nice to have the chance to get to know her a bit more, and maybe starting before she moved to Paris might have given us the chance to do that.
I didn’t feel like Benedict fleshed out the settings as well as she could have, whilst I got a good sense of the atmosphere at both the Paris lab and Kings College, I didn’t feel like I got a good sense of what 1940s Paris and 1950s London looked like, now granted, I don’t really picture things in my head so I don’t need massive amounts of detail, but a few more details would have given me a better idea of how these cities looked in the 40s and 50s.
It’s so infuriating that Franklin’s contribution to DNA was overlooked for so long and that she was basically punished for wanting to be diligent in her research and not wanting to rush into announcing anything before she had the proof. The fact that she was never credited for her work in her own lifetime also makes me really mad, it shouldn’t take women being dead for them to be credited for their work! I knew I’d be mad about the way Watson and Crick stole her research since I already was when I learned about that back in school, but I actually found I was more infuriated with her boss, Randall than Wilkins, Crick or Watson, yes they were all awful, but the way Randall sat by and did nothing to support her was really maddening.
It was really amazing to me how much Rosalind Franklin did before she died, considering she died so young, I only really knew about her DNA work, I had no idea about her work with RNA or her work on the structure of coal. If she’d not got cancer so young, she’d be in her nineties now and it’s tragic to think how much she never got to do and how much more she probably would have contributed to science if she’d lived. It’s also quite amazing to think that the understanding and knowledge that made the mRNA COVID vaccines possible were at least in a small part thanks to the research of Franklin, her colleagues and their successors.
As with many historical fiction novels, this book consists of a largely white, cishet cast of characters, but being set in the past is not an excuse and I’m sure that both London and Paris in the 1940s and 1950s were more diverse than Benedict portrays.
The writing could be a little repetitive in certain details, like the constant mentions of Rosalind’s chic Parisian dresses, her lack of religious beliefs etc. I also didn’t really understand why the author kept bringing up the Franklin family wealth when Rosalind mentioned that they didn’t like flaunting it?
I did feel like her illness was kind of glossed over, I would have liked to have spent a bit more time on that and seeing how it affected her, both physically and emotionally. The third part in general felt a little rushed, almost like the author was racing towards the end.
Overall, I did like this book, but it didn’t quite live up to the expectations I had for it. Rosalind Franklin was a fascinating woman and I enjoyed getting to learn more about her life and work, but for a novel, I felt that this lacked emotion and the dry, matter of fact writing, felt more like a biography. I felt like a lot of it could have done with more fleshing out, and I would have liked to have had more of an emotional connection to the characters. I do love what Benedict has done with wanting to focus her fiction on overlooked women from history though, and I definitely think I’d try other books of hers in the future.
My Rating: 3/5
My next review will be of my last February audiobook, Know My Name by Chanel Miller which I’ll probably have up either over the weekend or at the beginning of next week.