A front-runner for my #1 book of 2010!!
A Fierce Radiance is an extraordinary novel which comes along once every few years. I absolutely fell in love with this book and can't stop talking about it!!
A Fierce Radiance is set in the early 1940s during the first days following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The story follows the life of Claire Shipley, a beautiful and talented photojournalist for Life magazine, whose boss sends her to cover the testing of a potentially revolutionary new medicine made from green mold - penicillin. She is responsible for capturing the iconic images Americans look forward to seeing in Life Magazine. Living in New York City, Claire is a single mother to an 8 year old boy, Charlie. She lost her daughter, Emily, when she was only seven, from a scrape on the knee resulting in a blood infection. Emily's life would have been saved by penicillin. In 1941, the United States had just entered WWII, and "our boys" are dying on and off the battlefield from infection. The government pleads with the seven largest pharmaceutical companies to make penicillin their top priority. In the midst of this war-time drama, two people are brought together, fall in love, and are thrust into blackmail, espionage and murder, all of which revolve around the potential for mass production of a new blockbuster drug.
Penicillin - the weapon of war.
The words leaped off the page and came to life for me. Belfer's engaging writing transported me to war-time New York, the 1940s, an era that I'm already a bit obsessed with, and she got everything right. I feel like I'm describing a movie when I tell you the dialogue is engaging and fast-paced, the costumes are stunning, and the scenery is perfection. It may sound silly, but I loved that Belfer described all the women's clothes, hair and make-up. She was descriptive without taking away from the action and helped me to become even more absorbed into this important time in the world's history.
I have read an abundance of books that have World War II as their back-drop, but this was my first perspective of the war from this angle. I also live in New Jersey, the home of several of the actual pharmaceutical companies mentioned in the novel, which gave me a whole new look at an industry of which I am already very familiar. There is so much on-the-edge-of-your-seat drama in this race to the finish. Which company will be first in discovering how to mass produce penicillin? Will they share their discovery for the good of the country? Will they be able to do it in time to save our soldiers? Will they be able to do it in time to save our children? How far are people willing to go to keep or steal secrets?
This compelling novel was about loss, fear, hope, tragedy, war, suffering, government, corruption, fortune, greed and victory. For me, it was a love story. Claire Shipley meets Dr. James Stanton, a handsome doctor at The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, and what follows is the kind of love story they make movies about. Will they survive this race to save lives?
When I finish a book like this, I need more, so I spent a lot of time online researching penicillin, the pharmaceutical companies mentioned in the book, as well as some of the people and places. I don't need to share my discoveries with you, because in the Historical Note after the end of her novel, Belfer explains to readers which parts of her story were true to history and which were fiction. It's extremely scary the role that some of the pharmaceutical companies, which still exist today, played in WWII - and I'm not talking about the drugs that saved lives.
When people talk about the Great American Novel...this is it! It has everything a reader could possibly ask for - intriguing characters, intense drama, interesting plot, a heavy dose of reality, an epic love story and it's all bound together with Lauren Belfer's brilliant writing.