Mildred Savage’s In Vivo

by Jess

I’m a few pages from the end of this 639-page tome, but I already know how it’s going to end, and I already know what I want to say about it.  If anything changes drastically, I’ll be sure to amend my remarks, but the fact of the matter is I am finding myself skimming across pages all too often now.  The story has kept me interested so far — it’s kept me up late at night, even, which for me is the truest measure of a novel — but the characters are mostly flat and the scenes have become rote and the writing is repetitive.

Let me explain: In Vivo is a historical novel about the development of antibiotics in the 1940s.  We had penicillin and streptomycin, but nothing else, and precious little was known about those two.  The novel follows the scientists at a little company called Enright as they dream and struggle and fail, and try and try again.

There are only three basic scenes in the entire novel, which is why I said they have become rote.  They are:

1. Working in the laboratory

2. Arguing in the boardroom about the scientific method

3. Telling their wives or girlfriends about how the work is going

Every Monday, the scientists argue about whether to proceed methodically and slowly or to go quickly and empirically.  Then there’s some work on the antibiotics themselves.  Then they go home and either complain or worry to their wives and girlfriends, and sometimes they go right from talking about microbes to getting it on.  I know that I find microbes tres sexy, but who knew all women were exactly the same!  Speaking of which, don’t even get me started about the quality of the female characters in this book.  There’s not a single interesting strong female — though there are dozens of females (and the hyper-macho men are always calling the girls “frigid” — I’m so glad I didn’t live in the 40s).  I’d have expected more of Mildred Savage.

And darling Tom Cable, our intrepid visionary, is always off walking the beach or gazing dreamily out of windows or even pausing to ruminate mid-conversation with some gal, and he goes on for pages and pages just like this:

It’s broad-spectrum, he argued back.

But in the time that this one is taking, you could go through hundreds, he said to himself.  How do you know what else you might find — in the time you’re giving to this one, that you can’t figure out and can’t control and can’t hold onto?

It could still be a contaminant, he argued back.  It could straighten out all at once.  It’s possible.

It was possible — but he didn’t believe it.  It was just a damned peculiar antibiotic and nothing else.

Maybe it’s peculiar, he argued back, but it’s broad-spectrum.  And how many of them have you had?

Oh, dear God, make it stop.  I understand that scientific inquiry into an unknown field can be at times like teetering on the brink of a precipice, and only success will prove that you aren’t a loon.  But there’s no need to make the reader suffer along like this more than once or twice.  It’s the fallacy of imitative form.  Trust your readers, Mildred; we get it.

Still, for its many faults, it has at least kept me interested.  I expect the novel will end right around the time they finally produce a workable antibiotic, thus silencing all their detractors and emerging victorious from the scientific race.  If I’m wrong, as I said, I’ll be sure to let you know.  In the meantime, I’m getting back into the race.

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