Understanding the author behind ''Intuition'' -- Allegra Goodman talks about her love of Jane Austen, her smart children, and her writing process

Allegra Goodman, the novelist daughter of two professors, oversees one brainy household. Her husband teaches computer science at MIT. As for her children, she’s got three boys and one girl, and they sound like adorable whiz kids. Her oldest, Ezra, at 13, is a ”pretty voracious reader,” she reports over a spaghetti lunch. ”I think he could end up reviewing or something.” And her second-oldest, Gabriel, ”is sort of a policy wonk. When the review of my book came out in The Economist, my dad was taking him to the airport, and they were looking for the magazine on the airport newsstand, and my son said, ‘Oh, it’s not in that issue,I read that one already!”’ Goodman beams. ”He’s 10. He likes that kind of stuff.”

A lot of that brainpower certainly comes from his mother. That Economist review called Goodman’s latest book, Intuition, ”exciting,” ”exotic,” and ”a stunning achievement,” and EW recently gave it an A. It’s that rare literary novel set against a scientific backdrop; its characters are cancer-lab researchers torn asunder when one — a postdoc named Cliff — thinks he’s developed a virus that melts away tumors in mice, while another jealously believes Cliff is guilty of falsifying his results. Goodman set the book at a facility in Cambridge, Mass., not far from where she lives with her brood, and, to help her render ”the visceral, primitive activity that goes on with the mice,” she even dropped in on a lab — after she cleared a minor security check, that is. ”Because they have to make sure,” she explains cheerfully, ”that the woman who says she’s a novelist is not really an animal rights activist in disguise.”

Goodman is previously best known for 1998’s Kaaterskill Falls, her National Book Award-nominated novel set in a tightly knit summer community of Orthodox Jews in upstate New York. Before that, she drew raves for 1996’s The Family Markowitz, a delightful collection of interconnected stories about a dysfunctional Jewish clan. The Markowitz paperback opens with something you don’t often see in contemporary fiction: an appreciation. It’s written by one of Goodman’s peers, A Map of the World author Jane Hamilton, who counts herself a big fan. ”What I love about Allegra,” Hamilton says, ”is the fact that she’s one of those writers who seems to know everything about everything, but not in an overbearing way. With every book, I’m struck by her keen intelligence.”

With Intuition, Goodman is attempting to stretch herself by grappling with new and bigger subjects. She calls it ”my most ambitious book,” explaining that it’s her attempt ”to take my interest in family and community and closed societies and closed worlds and see what happens when the larger world breaks in.”

That interest of hers in closed worlds is what frequently gets her linked with the 19th-century writers she still reads over and over again. ”She’s been compared to Jane Austen and George Eliot, and I think it’s apt,” says her longtime editor, Susan Kamil. ”The subjects that Allegra grapples with are people who live in a world that’s filled with rituals and certain rules, and Austen and Eliot also dealt with societies that have strong rules about cultural and social mores and rituals. She’s as concerned with those things in the 21st century as they were in the 19th.”