No one writes 19th-century novels about 20th — and now 21st — century America better than Allegra Goodman, whose omniscient narrators and impeccably polished storytelling seem borrowed from an era when authors were expected to issue cool moral judgments rather than exorcise inner demons. In her first novel, 1998’s Kaaterskill Falls, Goodman captured the subtle currents beneath the surface of an Orthodox Jewish enclave in upstate New York. With her superb new Intuition, she turns her gimlet eye on another tight-knit community: a cancer research lab.

Sandy Glass and Marion Mendelssohn run a lab at the Philpott Institute in Cambridge, Mass., and they are, like all of Goodman’s characters, cultured, complex, and vividly drawn. A charming, prosperous doctor, Sandy is ”always cheerful, brimming with the irrepressible joy of his own intelligence.” Married to a lovely, accomplished academic, he has three lovely, accomplished daughters and lives in a luxurious home, for ”appearances were not superficial, but of substantive importance to him.” By contrast, Marion, a nervous perfectionist, is famed for utterances like ”Accuracy is more important than elegance.” She shares a dark, cluttered apartment with her husband, Jacob, who has invested himself entirely in her career. ”He was happy because he had discovered early, rather than late, that he would not be winning a Nobel Prize,” Goodman writes of this slippery, complicated man. ”And he had been granted an insight many of his scientific peers lacked — that when it came to Nobels, he himself did not need one. No, someday that distinction would belong to his wife.”

And that Nobel depends mightily on the young post-docs at the Philpott, who infect, inject, palpate, and kill scores of mice, year after year, in the frustrating search for cancer therapies. Frustrating, that is, until Cliff, the lab’s tall, Stanford-educated golden boy, begins seeing some encouraging results. Marion responds cautiously, Sandy exuberantly, and Robin, Cliff’s lab partner and girlfriend, with sudden, violent jealousy.

Where does it come from, titanic jealousy? Goodman makes Robin an immensely sympathetic character who is nearly destroyed by an ugly desire to take Cliff down. ”Note taker, list maker — inevitably she became secretary for any group to which she belonged,” Robin is a lifelong good girl who has had enough of watching others get ahead with luck, charm — and perhaps cheating. Prompted by the Iago-like Jacob (who has devious aims of his own), Robin accuses Cliff of falsifying his records.

Is Robin off her gourd? Did Cliff commit fraud? Maybe both? The tense issue-driven drama — complete with debates on the role of taxpayer-funded research — plays out in congressional hearings and law offices. But while you can get thundering courtroom action from John Grisham and Law & Order reruns, what you won’t often find is such a delicate analysis of how an ethics scandal filters through the sensibility of brilliant and brilliantly realized characters. It’s a tricky operation that Goodman performs with the precision of a scientist, and the flair of an artist at the top of her game.

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