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In a Cambridge lab, loyalties come under the microscope

By Allegra Goodman
344 pp., $25

Cambridge's own Allegra Goodman is a writer on her way up. Harvard-educated, a National Book Award finalist and Whiting Award recipient, this most unpretentious of writers has gone from strength to strength, fulfilling in perhaps unexpected ways the rich promise of her early fiction.

''Total Immersion" (1989) and ''The Family Markowitz" (1996) offered complex and engaging depictions of urban Jewish families at odds and in extremis, in collections of interconnected stories that fused and expanded to take on the amplitude and resonance of generously peopled and plotted novels.

''Kaaterskill Falls" (1998), Goodman's first novel per se, keenly studied family priorities and values among liberal intellectuals and orthodox suburbanites. ''Paradise Park" (2001), not quite its equal, nevertheless channeled its episodic structure into a brilliant portrayal of an impulsive young woman and her quest for a sustaining religious faith.

Her third novel is her best book yet: a brainy comedy of manners that deals with a subject of high contemporary relevance, is scrupulously researched, and -- more to the point -- enacted by a sizable cast of complicated and intriguing characters.

Its central setting is a Cambridge research laboratory, the Philpott Institute, where cancer researchers nervously await the expiration of a crucial NIH grant, which they fear won't be renewed. Therefore, when charismatic postdoctoral fellow Cliff Bannaker claims that his virus R-7 is shrinking tumors in mice, the implications for human cancer patients appear to bode well for Philpott's future.

The lab's directors, sedulous researcher Marion Mendelssohn and ebullient oncologist ''Sandy" Glass, exhibit contrasting reactions. She urges caution, suspicious of Cliff's disarming ''alchemy of authority, charm, and chutzpah." Sandy sets about ''selling" the story of the institute's breakthrough success. Cliff's colleague and girlfriend Robin Decker is conflicted, wanting to believe he has accomplished something important, but vulnerable to the suspicion that Cliff's ''results seem almost too good to be true."

Gradually convincing herself that Cliff has fabricated his research, Robin takes the ostensible high road. A hearing at which she presents her case only increases Cliff's new prestige, and she prepares to leave the institute. Then, new evidence is discovered, the investigative organization Office for Research Integrity in Science takes up the gauntlet, and the mice, one might say, are out of their cages.

Everything spins out of control. A congressman investigating scientific fraud plans to subpoena Robin. Cliff's research partner, Chinese whiz kid Xiang Feng, is threatened with deportation. A subcommittee hearing proceeds, and Robin is appalled to see ''her single intuition now transformed into a conspiracy theory implicating not only Cliff but nearly everyone who worked around him." The ORIS report -- whose own integrity is questionable -- is leaked to the media. Cliff's formal appeal produces a surprising result. The careers of Philpott personnel rise and fall out of all predictable proportion to their actions. Goodman points no fingers, states no moral, instead ending the novel with several perfectly chosen details.

We're shown Marion angry and resentful, alone in the lab she had made her own little world, meticulously unraveling the sweater she had been knitting for her husband, Jacob. Sandy lands, as always, on his feet, though not without a bitter awareness that he has sacrificed principle for expediency. Cliff's pursuit of success, temporarily stalled, is not derailed. And Robin's relationship withher mentor may be about to enter a new phase.

''Intuition" 's shapely narrative is energized throughout by a canny juxtaposition of brief confrontations with longer extended scenes that gather up situations and themes and examine them from new angles. The latter include a Christmas party at Sandy's posh Chestnut Hill home; , the institute's annual picnic at Walden Pond; and especially the subcommittee hearing at which publicity-hungry congressman Paul Redfield crosses swords with Xiang's unflappable African-born attorney Byron Zouzoua.

Even semi-peripheral characters are etched with virtuosic economy and precision: Sandy's teenager Kate, a precocious ''secret poet, essayist, [and] dedicated humanist" who develops an inconvenient crush on Cliff; and the aforementioned Jacob, a lecturer on microbiology, whose courtly deference to his wife's more ''creative" accomplishments masks a talent for manipulation that exacts a heavy toll.

Goodman has entered the rarefied world of scientific research with the zeal of a professional. Her descriptions of experiments on laboratory animals will have anti-vivisectionists howling for blood (so to speak). Her criticisms of scientists' excesses are both subtly allusive (a wry reference to Dickens's ''Bleak House" -- the novel Kate sends to Cliff -- neatly connotes the legal wrangling they get themselves into) and pointedly direct (in Kate's older sister Louisa's decision to research the life of Soviet geneticist T. D. Lysenko: ''Because I think corrupt scientists are far more interesting").

But there's no meanness or self-righteousness in a single sentence of this enthralling novel. Goodman's great gift is her ability to sense and dramatize the goodness -- sometimes the nobility -- in characters lesser writers might merely satirize. Her people interest her because they're as human as they are fallible and infuriating. They should interest us equally. There's nobody else like her writing today. This reader's intuition tells him so.

Critic Bruce Allen lives in Kittery, Maine. See ''Bookings," Page E6, for information on a local appearance by Goodman.

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