The first two nonfiction books I read this year are astounding. The first — Dopesick by Beth Macy, which I recently reviewed, — is about America’s opioid crisis and how the pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma helped start it with its aggressive marketing of the opioid drug Oxycontin that many doctors overprescribed. The second I will discuss in this post. It was a shocking read and I’m sure my face was an expression of astonishment the entire time I read it because “How the hell was she able to get away with this for so long??”
Nonfiction – true crime; business; science
The full inside story of the breathtaking rise and shocking collapse of Theranos, the multibillion-dollar biotech startup, by the prize-winning journalist who first broke the story and pursued it to the end, despite pressure from its charismatic CEO and threats by her lawyers.
In 2014, Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes was widely seen as the female Steve Jobs: a brilliant Stanford dropout whose startup “unicorn” promised to revolutionize the medical industry with a machine that would make blood testing significantly faster and easier. Backed by investors such as Larry Ellison and Tim Draper, Theranos sold shares in a fundraising round that valued the company at more than $9 billion, putting Holmes’s worth at an estimated $4.7 billion. There was just one problem: The technology didn’t work.
A riveting story of the biggest corporate fraud since Enron, a tale of ambition and hubris set amid the bold promises of Silicon Valley. (Goodreads)
That synopsis does a great job of stating what the book’s about. If it already sounds interesting to you, then I suggest you go get yourself a copy to read. If not, read on and hopefully I’ll be able to persuade you that this is one you should read.
Of course, I gotta tell how this book got on my radar. I heard about it first from Rincey Reads, the booktuber. She had read and reviewed it on her channel and, like me, was astounded by what she’d read. Her review pricked my interest, which made me keep an eye out for it; but it wasn’t until I started working at the bookstore that I thought I should read the book.
I got curious because we couldn’t keep a copy of Bad Blood on the shelves for long. We only had a few copies but as soon as we got more, they were gone. People kept coming in to ask if we had any available, and we kept responding that there’s an elusive copy somewhere in the store that’s always available, in the system, but can never be found. Customers’ interest in the book made me visit the library for a copy (wasn’t sure I would like it), and I got lucky. There was a copy waiting for me on the shelves when I arrived.
I started reading as soon as I had it in hand just to sample the writing, but I was immediately hooked and completed it in about a week. The voice sucks you right in. The pace is fast, and you can’t put it down for long. I was compelled by my curiosity (how did this house of cards collapse?) and disbelief that Elizabeth Holmes was able to raise millions of dollars from notable investors that included Rupert Murdoch and Safeway without ever presenting a viable product to them. Safeway even remodeled their stores to include clinics in which they intended to use her machine, but it was never used on site. With so much money involved and such powerful individuals serving on Theranos’s board — which included former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger and current secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, — it’s a wonder that Holmes got away with her sham for so long. But people and companies kept investing mostly, it seems, because of a bad case of FOMO.
The more I read, the more surprised and shocked I got. I’d heard about Elizabeth Holmes on the news and read an article about her in the New York Times, but I didn’t pay close attention to the story back then so most of this book’s content was new to me. Carreyrou did a great job of making it read like a fast-paced mystery. He tells us about how and when Holmes devised her idea for a blood-testing machine, how she went about building her company, what the culture of the company was like (so scary; I wouldn’t want to work there!), how her fame increased, who the powerful investors were and why they continued to invest and serve on its board without ever seeing a machine that works, and how this promising idea and revolutionary invention failed and caused everyone to realize it was all smokes and mirrors.
It was…it was mind-boggling to me that so much money was invested. I just can’t comprehend that. I’m stuck on that one bit of information. But also surprising was the lengths at which Holmes and her company went to stop Carreyrou’s story, his first article about Theranos that was published in the Wall Street Journal. For a while I thought I was reading fiction. I’d forgotten that the events happened to real people, which was both a good and bad thing. Good for the book because I was riveted to the story, but bad because with true stories it’s important to remember who the story is about and who were affected and that they are real people who are probably still being affected by what happened.
This one was a crazy ride. I’m glad I took a chance and read it and though it struck me as little sensational and gossipy at times, I’m glad Carreyrou wrote it and that his article in the Wall Street Journal had the impact it did because many lives could have been at risk if Theranos had continued.
Overall: ★★★★☆ ½
I HIGHLY recommend it. You don’t need to be familiar with the Elizabeth Holmes/Theranos case to understand it. Carreyrou does a great job of explaining it all. I especially recommend it if nonfiction isn’t your thing but you’d like to dip your toes in it because this reads like a novel.
Buy | Borrow | Bypass
I didn’t buy it but because of how gripping it is, I think it’s worth the Buy. I might get the paperback when it’s out.
“…it’s crucial to bear in mind that Theranos wasn’t a tech company in the traditional sense. It was first and foremost a health-care company.”