Reading guide for A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer

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A Fierce Radiance

A Novel

by Lauren Belfer

A Fierce Radiance
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2010, 544 pages
    Apr 2011, 544 pages

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!


From the New York Times bestselling author of City of Light comes a compelling, richly detailed tale of passion and intrigue set in New York City during the tumultuous early days of World War II.

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 and researchers 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.

Lauren Belfer dazzled readers with her debut novel, City of Light, a New York Times notable book of the year. In this highly anticipated follow-up, she deftly captures the uncertainty and spirit, the dreams and hopes, of a nation at war. A sweeping tale of love and betrayal, intrigue and idealism, A Fierce Radiance is an ambitious and deeply engaging novel from an author of immense talent.

Questions for Discussion
  1. A Fierce Radiance is set in New York, at the onset of World War II. Talk about America during wartime. How was the war a part of the lives of Claire and Charlie Shipley, Jamie Stanton, Edward Rutherford, Bill Shipley, and other Americans? Did any of your relatives serve in the war? What about on the home front—do you know how your relatives’ lives were affected during that time?

  2. Contemporary Americans are also living during a time of war. How have the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq impacted Americans today? Contrast the two times. Do you think Americans today feel as part of the war effort as they did in the 1940s? Explain.

  3. Wartime New York City is brought vividly to life in the novel. What were your impressions of the city? How do those impressions compare to your ideas of what the city is like today? What was the place you call home like during World War II? How does it compare to its contemporary version? Do you think we—as a society and a nation—have lost anything in the decades between then and now?

  4. What is your opinion of Claire Shipley? Do you think she was like other women of her time? How did her background influence her choices, including her work? How did her career shape her outlook on the events that were happening around her?

  5. Outside of her son, the most important men in Claire’s life were her father, Edward Rutherford, Jamie Stanton, and Henry Luce. What did each of them mean to her? How did her relationship with each change over the course of the story?

  6. Claire was a photojournalist for Life magazine. Have you ever seen an issue of that publication? What role did Life play in the national consciousness? Do we have anything like Life today?

  7. Think about Claire’s job as a photojournalist and her directives from her boss, Henry Luce. Did she see herself as part of the war effort or as an objective bystander covering events? What is the role of a journalist today? Might our outlook of the Second World War be different if Claire and her colleagues covered it following today’s journalistic standards? What are the pros and cons of objectivity?

  8. Before reading A Fierce Radiance, did you have any idea that penicillin and other antiobiotics were discovered less than a hundred years ago? How did these medical miracles change our lives? Are we too reliant on drugs like antibiotics as well as antibacterial household products today? Will these drugs always be as effective as they have been? How do you think can we extend the potency of the drugs we have available to us?

  9. Do you think 21st-century Americans take their good health and advanced medical care for granted? Could you imagine living or raising a child when the simplest of conditions—a cold, a scraped knee, a cat scratch—could lead to death? How do you think you would cope living with such knowledge? Have we as a nation, forgotten the transformation that the discovery of antibiotics and vaccines have made in our lives?

  10. The Rockefeller Institute followed the motto “for the good of humankind.” The doctors, scientists, and researchers worked tirelessly in the name of science, not wealth. Does this kind of selfless humanity still exist? Should everything be done for profit? Why? Do you think we as a nation have lost our sense of shared commitment, of the “common good”?

  11. Claire argues with her father that selling antibacterials are not like selling rivets. He disagrees, to which she responds: “You don’t think there’s well, a human right for people to be able to receive an antibacterial at two cents a dose if that’s what it costs to produce? Okay, at a dollar to allow for a hefty profit, but surely not as much as two hundred dollars for one shot?” How would you answer this? Companies often do spend a great deal of money in research and development, which they want to recoup. But how much profit is enough, or are there no limits, no matter the cost to other human beings?

  12. With the lives of millions of soldiers at stake, the war department claimed the patents on penicillin’s means of production to ensure that no single drug company could either have a monopoly on this essential “war weapon” or to divert government funding into other more lucrative research of their own. Do you think this was a good or necessary thing to do? What might have happened if they decided to let the free market take care of production?

  13. Before doctors can discover cures, they need to do an enormous amount of medical testing. In A Fierce Radiance, some of the subjects were given drugs without knowing the possible side effects. Some of these were interned Japanese Americans. Should they have been told what could happen if they received the medication? Rutherford felt using them as test subjects was a necessary byproduct of saving the many, especially when the drugs saved their lives. Others felt these “Japs”—whom they viewed as possible enemy sympathizers or combatants—didn’t deserve such knowledge. What do you think?

  14. The government lackey, Andrew Barnett, tells Claire, there is “no morality in war.” Do you agree with this? Is “winning at any cost”—if it includes murder and letting a killer go free—victory?

  15. What did you take away from reading A Fierce Radiance?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Harper Perennial. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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