A Fierce Radiance: A Novel
Harper (2010), Hardcover (ISBN 0061252514 / 9780061252518)
Fiction, 544 pages
Source: ARC (Advance Reader’s Copy) received from publicist Jocelyn Kelley of Kelley & Hall Book Publicity and Promotion. The novel was published in June 2010 and is now available in stores.
Opening Lines: “Claire Shipley was no doctor, but even she could see that the man on the stretcher was dying. His lips were blue from lack of oxygen. His cheeks were hollow, his skin leathery and tight against his bone. His eyes were open but unfocused, like the glass eyes in a box at a doll factory she’d once photographed.”
Comments: I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a huge historical-fiction junkie, and when I do read it, I tend to like fiction set in the not-so-distant past. One reason I prefer that time frame is that it reinforces the incredible pace of change during the last century. Lauren Belfer’s first novel, City of Light (1999), was set in Buffalo, New York at the turn of the 20th century, and was concerned with industrial growth and hydroelectric power; it was one of my favorite books of the last ten years, and I’ve been waiting a while to hear from her again. She’s back at last, and has moved forward a few decades, to the World War II era – and it was worth the wait. I’m quite confident that A Fierce Radiance will make my Books of the Year list.
We live in an era where antibiotics are common, practically taken for granted, and when many illnesses have virtually disappeared thanks to vaccines. We live in an era where we even have the option to refuse antibiotics and vaccines. It’s easy to forget that as recently as seventy years ago – when some of our parents and/or grandparents were young – these things didn’t exist yet, and could barely be imagined by most people. Many illnesses were expected to be fatal, and one could even die from a cut or wound, if infection set in. When penicillin and other antibiotics first came on the scene, they were viewed as the “wonder drugs” they truly were, because they would truly save lives.
When divorced photojournalist Claire Shipley is assigned a story about the medical team at New York City’s Rockefeller Institute which is about to test penicillin on a human patient for the first time, in the early winter of 1941, she also has a personal interest. Her three-year-old daughter Emily died of blood poisoning after a minor accident, and she is fascinated that there could soon be a away to prevent that fate for others. She’s not the only one interested, either. The United States has just been pulled into World War II, and the government believes that penicillin and its “cousins” – other mold-based antibacterials that are still being researched – have great potential to reduce the war’s casualty count. The pharmaceutical companies, for their part, see major commercial opportunity in these emerging wonder drugs.
Claire’s work for Life magazine draws her into the story, and her relationships with two men – Rockefeller researcher James Stanton and her father, Edward Rutherford, a venture capitalist – pull her more deeply into it. Her personal connection is deepened not just by her guilt over her lost daughter, but her protectiveness toward her remaining child, her son Charlie.
Belfer covers a lot of territory in A Fierce Radiance. She explores the research-and-development work that helped lay the foundations of the modern pharmaceutical industry. She draws a portrait of wartime life on the home front, and a detailed picture of 1940’s New York City (which is when and where my parents grew up). She follows the investigation of a mysterious, sudden death that may be somehow connected to the drug research. And she ties it all together by bringing it back to Claire Shipley.
The author takes an interesting approach to the narration, frequently shifting perspectives; sometimes the shifts occur within a single paragraph as she elaborates on the thoughts of two characters involved in a scene or conversation. Readers who prefer “show” to “tell” might be a bit annoyed by this, but I appreciated it. It really helped make the characters more vivid and layered to me, and helped me develop more empathy toward some of them than I might have had otherwise. Claire is a particularly well-drawn and complex character, which matters since the story is built around her. As a single mother with a thriving career, she may strike one as unusual for her time, but perhaps more approachable for our own, and I found her quite convincing. I found the development and complications of her relationship with Jamie Stanton – two “older” (pushing forty!) professionals with serious responsibilities, in wartime – convincing as well.
At 544 pages (finished copy), this is a chunkster, but it was a fast and fascinating read, and an all-around terrific story. I easily lost myself in it, and I think it’ll be a hard one to shake. I really hope I won’t have to wait another ten years for Lauren Belfer’s next novel!
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