Monday, February 28, 2022

Rachel Pastan's recent novel, 'In the Field' (Delphinium, 2021), has won the National Book Foundation's inaugural Science + Literature award. 

Portrait of Rachel Pastan
Rachel Pastan (Photo: Andy Shelter)

Rachel Pastan (MFA, 1990) is the author of four novels, most recently In the Field. Her previous novel, Alena, was named an Editors’ Choice in the New York Times Book Review. The daughter of a molecular geneticist and a poet, she has worked as editor-at-large at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, and taught fiction writing at the Bennington Writing Seminars, Swarthmore College, and elsewhere.

In the Field

In 1923, having persuaded her resistant mother to send her to college, Kate Croft falls in love with science. Painfully rebuffed by a girl she longs for, and in flight from her own confusing sexuality, Kate finds refuge in the calm rationality of biology: its vision of a deeply interconnected world, and the promise that the new field of genetics can explain the way people are.

But science, too, turns out to be marred by human weakness. Despite her hard work and extraordinary gifts, Kate struggles, facing discrimination, competition, and scientific theft. At the same time, a love affair is threatened by Kate’s obsession with figuring out the meaning of the puzzling changes she sees in her experiments. The novel explores what it takes to triumph in the ruthless world of mid-20th-century genetics, following Kate as she decides what she is—and is not—willing to sacrifice to succeed.

Committee's citation:

In vivid, well-crafted prose, Rachel Pastan’s novel In the Field brings us into the professional and private life of a dedicated female geneticist, born in the 1920s, whose challenges and sacrifices illustrate how science, far from being impersonal, is practiced by people—how the pursuit of knowledge is shaped by the social norms and preconceptions that limit our behavior as individuals, and delay the acceptance of new ideas by the scientific community.”