(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Natalie Angier is a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer for The New York Times. She has won the Lewis Thomas Award as well as the Journalism Award of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Because she writes for a lay audience, Angier tends to use colorful metaphors and analogies to aid in reader understanding, yet her work comes from her studies in numerous scientific fields including biology, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, sociology, history, and biochemistry. Among her other nonfiction books are The Beauty of the Beastly: New Views of the Nature of Life (1995) and Natural Obsessions: The Search for the Oncogene (1988), which was also published in 1999 as Natural Obsessions: Striving to Unlock the Deepest Secrets of the Cancer Cell.

In her preface to Woman: An Intimate Geography, Angier discusses the organization, the purpose, and the features of her book. While examining the anatomy of the female body, she offers theories about the function and purpose of each part of the body. Early chapters, which focus primarily on the specific parts of the body, are resplendent with facts, historical anecdotes, and theories about the purpose and function of the various elements. Angier begins her book with discussions of the smallest element, the egg, and eventually works her way to the vagina, the clitoris, the uterus, the breast, then back to the ovaries and the Fallopian tubes. Her later chapters focus more on systems and female behaviors. Throughout the book, Angier consistently calls into question the reader’s preconceived notions about the nature of being female, tackling such issues as female aggression, menopause, and woman’s supposed monogamous nature. Though she often wants readers to adopt some call for action, most of her suggestions are tempered by good sense and buttressed by scientific evidence.

Angier’s factual and often provocative details permeate her book. She looks at the exact makeup of the human egg, for example, discussing at length the hormonal and proximal triggering factors that cause only one egg to break loose each month. Her attention to the minutiae of female biology—the bland gray colors of the ovaries, the turnipy flesh of a fibroid tumor, the precise duct work in a lactating woman’s breasts—underscores the microscopic precision of her facts. Furthermore, Angier takes on often underdiscussed aspects of the human anatomy such as the clitoris, looking at both its function and its physical makeup. Twice, Angier discusses the surgeries she witnessed so she could see elements of the female body.

In later chapters, Angier moves into broader discussions about female systems, such as endocrinology, as well as female behaviors. The primary sources for her theories are case studies from various fields of science, though many of her more radical theories often have less support than one might like. Yet, Angier does not claim that all of her beliefs are founded in absolute truth. In fact, in her preface, she suggests that she “toss[es] out ideas and theories” concerning the origins and purposes of female anatomy, sometimes including them for their “contrariety, their power to buck the party line of woman’s nature.’” To her credit, Angier never couches these “theories” in the language of fact.

Though most of the book discusses the biology of women, Angier does not ignore the feminist implications of what she discovers, and her attitude toward feminism informs the kinds of discoveries she brings to the surface and her applications of those discoveries. In her preface, Angier separates herself from two distinct brands of feminism. She consistently undermines the idea of female biology as unknowable and superior because of its inherent mystery, debunking Camille Paglia and others of her ilk. Angier suggests that women are knowable and capable of being studied, not unfathomable at all. At the same time, she resists feminists who believe in intellect over biology, the idea that women have to rise above their inherent natures to get what they want. Angier does not want women to deny their biology or accept mystification as an easy answer in discussing body systems. Rather, she wants to illuminate areas of mystery, show how the body does inform the mind, then step back and let the reader assess her findings. For example, when she discusses menstruation, she does not cloak the discussion in the joys of this bodily function. Rather, she explains in scientific detail the features and...

(The entire section is 1840 words.)