Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Blood Matters, by Masha Gessen

A few years ago my cousin called, urging me to get tested for the BRCA gene mutation that she and two of her sisters had tested positive for. At the time, my sister-in-law, who had long since tested positive for two of the three known BRCA mutations, was dying. It felt like BRCA mutations were all around me, destroying everyone I loved.

It seems only fitting to review Blood Matters right after The Immortal Life of Henrietta Sacks. Both of these books mix detailed, scholarly scientific information with a compelling narrative. In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks the author writes herself in as character, but in a detached way, as an objective facilitator and recorder of the events. In Blood Matters Masha Gessen immerses herself fully, and writes, memoir-like, of a story that begins with the discovery that she has tested positive for one of the BRCA gene mutations. So, now what? Well, there are agonizing decisions that Gessen is forced into making. To inform these decisions she does deep research into all aspects of this new frontier of genetic testing and the burgeoning information on genetically inherited diseases, and we get to learn along with her.

Masha Gessen is an interesting, off-beat character, a Russian-born nominally Jewish lesbian, so that she includes intimate details about her personal life makes her superb writing even more compelling and memorable. It's a brave new world out there. The best and only way I know to navigate it is to get all the information you possibly can. Read this book.

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