"His Brother's Keeper" is the author's extremely personal book and each reader's reaction is correspondingly likely to be uniquely (and probably intensely) personal. Thus I doubt if my own opinion expressed here will have any great generality. I'll post it anyway and apologize in advance for its specificity.
This is the third book about science and scientists by Jonathan Weiner that I have read. Based on what I saw as significant evolution in skill in the second ("Time, Love, Memory"), I had high expectations for this third. The book means to tell two interwoven stories. One is the very specific yet compellingly multi-faceted one of a young man, Stephen Haywood, who contracts an incurable disease (ALS, or "Lou Gehrig's disease) and of how his family reacts. The second means to generalize from that by relating it to how genetics, gene therapy, and other radically new treatments are challenging the accepted norms of medical research. This interplay of the particular and the universal is the approach that Weiner seemed to have mastered in his previous work.
It is a third narrative that, in my view and as Weiner almost admits, causes this account to go off course. At about the same time that he embarked on this project, the author learns that his mother is also the victim of an incurable neurological disease. As he struggles to come to terms with this devastating diagnosis, he describes how he is inextricably seduced by the efforts of Stephen Haywood's entrepreneurial brother to accelerate the discovery of a revolutionary cure for ALS and perhaps other related disorders.
The book radiates sadness from the beginning and you might want to steal yourself, as I did, by resolutely distancing yourself from its subjects. (This was a strategy that was unavailable to Weiner once he learned of his mother's illness.) Before their collision with ALS, the Haywoods were a privileged and blessed family, characterized by charm, intelligence, a prosperity that exceeded most, an excess of good taste, and apparently no notable good works. Weiner strives to convinces us that they are not just charming but also sympathetic and admirable people - "grace under pressure" is one of his professed themes -but he achieves that only for Stephen.
Tolstoy taught us that there is uniqueness in every unhappy family. The Haywood story achieves uniqueness in large part because of Stephen's older brother Jamie. At the beginning of the account, just before Stephen's diagnosis, Jamie is distinguished by two characteristics: he is remarkably tied to his brother and he has happened to have just made his way into the Biotechnology field. Trained and successful as a Mechanical Engineer, his talent and drive have propelled him into more entrepreneurial pursuits. This is 1996, and where better to be an ambitious, driven entrepreneur than in Biotech. He joins the Neurosciences Institute, with the charter to "package the think-tank's ideas and turn them into money." The scientists there believe that their research puts them on the verge of being able to "cure the uncurable." It is a time of great hubris, both scientific and economic, and Jamie has found an epicenter.
When he learns that his brother has one of those "uncurable" diseases, Jamie launches his own foundation to find the cure. Weiner traces Jamie's various battles and tries to relate these efforts to the larger story of modern neuroscience. But the author's own reactions increasingly compete for the focus of the story. He too is seeking a cure for an uncurable disease, that of his mother. His objectivity is undermined, and his ability to distinguish hype from reality is incurably compromised.
We do get fascinating and tantalizing glimpses into the science, business, and personalities of genetic therapy, but these serve only to make us wish for a more developed treatment. Weiner is a surreptitiously artful writer whose style is usually characterized by paragraphs that are compact but commanding and authoritative. He crafts many of those here, but not to the same effect as in his earlier work. In fact, this book frequently does not seem crafted at all, just avalanched from an emotional precipice. The aspects of the story beyond that of the Haywoods and Weiners are difficult to follow as scientists, researchers, and theories of neurological behavior flicker in and out of the account, and there's no index to help those of us with less than encyclopedic memories.
In the closing Acknowledgements, the author says this in thanking his father: "[h]e would much rather have kept our own story in the family, and I hope he will feel that the cause was good." This seems to me to be a measure of the both the strength and weakness of "His Brother's Keeper." It is obviously a heartfelt work that attempts great personal honesty. Yet we are left not quite sure what the cause was.