In Gain, Richard Powers interweaves two narratives. One is the story of Laura Bodey, a forty-two-year-old divorced realtor with two adolescent children, who lives in the midwestern U.S. town of Lacewood. Sometime in the late 1990s, Laura is diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The account of her illness, treatment, and eventual death is set against the story of the Clare Soap and Chemical corporation, whose headquarters are in Lacewood, from its inception as a trading company at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

The Clare corporation is implicated in Laura's death: pollutants from its Lacewood plant have been associated, not quite unquestionably, with abnormally high cancer rates in the area. A class-action suit against the company succeeds, but Clare, globally powerful and massively differentiated, is ultimately immune: no matter how much we might sympathize with individual members of the Clare company (and Powers ensures that we do), the corporation has become a kind of monster beyond human control.


Powers manages to connect the two plots of this novel remarkably well: the individual scale of Laura's illness and death is somehow no less globally significant and no more personally involving than the "biography" of the corporation. The reader is led to identify with the dying patient at the same time as sympathizing with the processes and experiences that produced the company that may or may not have hastened her death. A great text for any discussion of medicine and the environment at the end of the twentieth century.


Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Place Published

New York



Page Count