A Fierce Radiance, by Lauren Belfer (New York: Harper, 2010).
Jacket summary: "Claire Shipley is a single mother haunted by the death of her young daughter and by her divorce years ago. She is also an ambitious photojournalist, and in the anxious days after Pearl Harbor, the talented Life magazine reporter finds herself on top of one of the nation's most important stories. In the bustling labs of New York City's renowned Rockefeller Institute, some of the country's brightest doctors are racing to find a cure that will save the lives of thousands of wounded American soldiers and countless others -- a miraculous new drug they call penicillin. Little does Claire suspect how much the story will change her own life when the work leads to an intriguing romance.
"Though Claire has always managed to keep herself separate from the subjects she covers, this story touches her deeply, stirring memories of her daughter's sudden illness and death -- a loss that might have been prevented by this new 'miracle drug.' And there is James Stanton, the shy and brilliant physician who coordinates the institute's top secret research for the military. Drawn to this dedicated, attractive man and his work, Claire unexpectedly finds herself falling in love. But Claire isn't the only one interested in the secret development of this medicine. Her long-estranged father, Edward Rutherford, a self-made millionaire, understands just how profitable a new drug like penicillin could be. When a researcher at the institute dies under suspicious circumstances, the stakes become starkly clear: a murder has been committed to obtain these lucrative new drugs. With lives and a new love hanging in the balance, Claire will put herself at the center of danger to find a killer -- no matter what price she may have to pay."
Opening line: "Claire Shipley was no doctor, but even she could see that the man on the stretcher was dying."
My take: What do you say about a book that's part historical fiction, part mystery/ suspense, and part medical drama, with the obligatory bit of romance mixed in? Well, in the case of A Fierce Radiance, I'd say it's surprisingly good. You'd think, from the jacket flap, that the plot would either get impossibly complicated or implausibly cheesy, but it actually doesn't. A hard-core mystery or medical thriller it's not, but Belfer does an admirable job of blending the varied elements of the story without making the reader want to skip over one section or the other. No mean task, that.
It's not spoiling too much to say that yes, the man on the stretcher in Act I does, indeed, die. After a minor scrape on the tennis court gets infected, he arrives at the Rockefeller Institute in grave condition. Claire, a Life photojournalist who excels in blending into her surroundings to capture the story, has been sent to document penicillin's emergence as a miracle drug -- just in time to treat the countless injuries our soldiers will incur in World War II, which the U.S. has just entered the week the novel opens. With no other avenues left to treat Mr. Reese, his wife agrees to subject him to the first human penicillin trials. His recovery is nothing short of miraculous.
There's a catch, of course. While scientists have known about penicillin since the 1920s, its mass production continues to elude them. The Institute has only what they can grow in milk bottles and bedpans, and supplies are limited. Having never tried penicillin on humans before, dosage levels and frequency take some guesswork. A short few days later, Reese relapses, and dies before more penicillin is available.
His story and those of the researchers involved set the stage for the bulk of the novel. The military is sure to need as much penicillin as they can produce; civilians are bound to want it when word gets out; and yet there's no viable way to produce it on a large, commercial scale -- even though a Navy-led team of scientists from all the major pharmaceutical companies is throwing everything they have at the problem. Or are they? While the government's pre-emptively barred them from patenting anything to do with penicillin, there are sure to be other mold-based medicines out there, and all the drug companies have already realized that identifying and patenting them is where the real money lies. Needless to say, they're none too eager to share their progress in this area; patriotic duty, after all, only goes so far.
Furious when Life kills her penicillin story (Reese's death makes it too depressing for wartime), increasingly drawn to chief Rockefeller penicillin researcher James Stanton, and desperate not to be sent overseas on assignment, Claire pitches a new project to publisher Henry Luce: let her document the nascent penicillin production process, and don't publish it until the magazine and the country are ready. The formidable Luce agrees. Things get complicated in a hurry, however, when Claire is assigned a second job, working for the federal government: use the knowledge she gains to keep tabs on the pharmaceutical companies, and make sure they aren't holding anything back. A researcher who's just started to see promising results from a penicillin alternative ends up dead; was it suicide, accident, or murder? And Claire's father, the inventor/ tycoon she's just recently begun to know after a decades-long estrangement, has just bought a pharmaceutical company, and is turning up in the oddest places.
While A Fierce Radiance is certainly a page turner, it's the supporting details that really set it apart. Belfer succeeds brilliantly in capturing the texture of everyday Americans' lives in the early days of WWII: the constant fear that the nightly bombings of London would come to New York and Washington, the potentially devastating consequences of illness and injury in the pre-antibiotic age, the lingering aftermath of the Great Depression. While Claire herself has a bit of Mary Sue about her, the bulk of the characters are complex and believable; I especially appreciated how the author portrayed Rutherford, Claire's father, in this regard.
If anything, the romance is the weakest part of the story. It's not that I object to a love story that starts out with an intense physical attraction; heck, it happens all the time. But because it is so common, it's hard to write about it in a way that feels fresh or non-cliched. Fortunately, the somewhat-trite beginning is largely redeemed as the story progresses, Claire and Jamie are kept apart by their respective wartime assignments, and ... well, life happens.
All in all, an engaging read, and an interesting twist on the World War II novel. If you like historical fiction and/or medical thrillers, you'll probably like this one.
- Ithaca, New York
- MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.