Tuesday, June 15, 2010

a review of "A Fierce Radiance" [43]

A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer
(Harper Collins, ISBN 978-0-06-125251-8)

Most of us alive today can not remember a time when a small cut, a simple fall could be a death sentence, when a soar throat could turn septic, a case of pneumonia would leave a classmate's desk empty forever.
A time before penicillin.

It is just after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Claire Shipley, a staff photographer for Life magazine, is sent to New York's Rockefeller Institute to document the trials of a new experimental drug. The trials, led by the handsome, brilliant Dr. Jamie Stanton, are of a drug that is being grown in small quantities, in milk bottles, from green mold, a drug that the researchers think may be able to cure infections. It is a great human interest story, as she photographs a man who is snatched back from the edge of death, only to succumb when they run out of the medicine. But Claire's interest is more than professional, having lost her own 3 year old daughter to blood poisoning eight years before. Her own daughter is gone but Clair knows how many more might be saved if only a way can be found to produce this penicillin in sufficient quantities.

Once the government realized the success of the trials, they also realize what the production of this drug to treat injured troops could mean to the war effort. Just as most of us do not remember a time before antibiotics, most of us also do not remember a time when many Americans though the Allies might lose the war and a time when the residents of NYC thought invasion was a real possibility. Penicillin could be a weapon that would change the outcome of the war, which at the moment was looking pretty grim.

Claire's story would not be published because the government took over the trials and set about to coordinate an effort by all the major pharmaceutical companies, in secrecy, to find a method for the massive production of penicillin. Of course, the Allies' enemies had their spies in place, hoping to steal the technology, while the pharmaceutical companies, while working on penicillin, were each also trying to produce another, non-government regulated "cousin", a related antibiotic that, if successful, would mean a fortune for them. The stakes are huge..power, money, the very outcome of the war. There is a suspicious death that strikes close to home, espionage and, on a more personal level, Claire's new romance with Dr. Stanton, to round out this epic story.

A Fierce Radiance is an historical novel, a thriller and a romance...and it succeeds in each to varying degrees.

I am not usually a fan of historical novels, but this book is an exception. I think Belfer is very successful in recreating the WWII era, the mood, the fears, the shortages, the life in new York in the midst of World war II. It is a city were raw sewage still flowed into the rivers, cattle were brought into stockyards to be slaughtered and the windows of the houses of Clair's Greenwich Village neighbors were increasing filled with the Gold Stars that showed it was the home of a now dead soldier. Having Claire, a Life magazine photographer with her various assignments, at the center of the book is a wonderful vehicle for exploring these happenings and she is a fascinating character. Surprising, the whole issue of the development of penicillin is by far the most interesting part of the book and without question the story is at it's strongest when that subject is at the center.

As a thriller, the book is fairly successful. I am a great fan of mysteries and this was a pretty good one, with an interesting police detective, enough red herrings, spies and corporate intrigue to keep me interested.

But for me, the weakest link of the book was the romance between Claire and the good Doctor Jamie. Part of the problem was that I just didn't like him, from the moment, in the earliest pages of the book, when he seems to be spending more time considering how he will get Claire into his bed than tending to the dying man in front of him. Add in a few moral lapses, a dose of amnesia and a number of unexplained stupid decisions and I was not very vested in this romance.

Overall, for me, A Fierce Radiance is good book than fell just short of being an excellent book by trying to keep just one too many plates in the air at the same time. It seems just a little confused about what kind of book it is and maybe, in trying to be too many things, falls just a little short. This book is at it's best when it zones in on the real history surrounding the development of penicillin and the changed world that discovery created. When that is at the heart of the story, it is a very entertaining book.

My thanks to Kelley and Hall for a review copy of this book.


  1. Sometimes I think authors try to pander to too many different tastes. This sounds like an interesting book if you just skip over the romance stuff. I would read it just for the WWII atmosphere. Great review, Caite!

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one. I think it sounds very interesting, even if it does try to be too many things. I'll put it on my wishlist for later. Love the cover in the sepia tones.

  3. The parts that were good...Claire, WWII, penicillin..were very good. The rest, not so much.

    ..and I agree, it is a lovely cover.

  4. I might have to check this one out! (But I'll probably side with you on the romance part. It's hard to find a decent one...)

  5. I think it is hard to find one that rings true..

  6. In spite of the lackluster romance, it still sounds like it has enough to offer me...I'm going to put it on the list.

  7. Sounds like a nice mix of ... almost everything!

    I'm allergic to penicillin by the way. Amazing I'm still alive it sounds like!

  8. I loved Lauren Belfer "City Of Light". This book sounds just as good. Thanks for the review.
    Love & Hugs,

  9. Thanks for reviewing this- I just saw it at the bookstore last night and I appreciate your point of view! I'm not sure it's for me but I'm glad you found it good overall :-)

  10. Marie, I would recommend it...with a slight caveat.

    Jenners, part of the story was how the drug companies very quickly started developing 'cousins' to penicillin

  11. I read this one a few months back and as I recall, I had a similar reaction to you. It was good, just not spectacular. I wasn't crazy about the "romance" portion, but the development of penicillin was interesting.

  12. Too bad the author included the romance - that generally falls short for me in a book like this. I still want to give the book a try, but I've lowered my expectations a little.


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