Lauren Belfer’s A Fierce Radiance is described as historical fiction, but this almost seems too limiting of classification. Reading A Fierce Radiance is at once taking a step back into the past to get a surprisingly informative and realistic yet still entertaining look at the United States during World War II. At the same time, it is easy to forget that the story is taking place over 60 years ago.
The novel follows Life photographer Claire Shipley as she investigates the development of penicillin. While the development of penicillin might not sound like the most scintillating of tales, this story has many, many twists and turns. The book shows people dying from infections set in from otherwise seemingly innocuous scratches, examines the intricacies of developing a life-saving drug in milk bottles and pie plates, and delves into the question of whether or not a naturally occurring substance can be patented.
Along with all the fabulous scientific particulars, we have murder, espionage, family worries, and of course, a little sex and romance. For the most part, all of these elements blend together beautifully. However, occasionally there is a convenient, coincidental, or clichéd happening — such as a someone serving in WWII being listed as dead but really being treated for amnesia and recovering nicely in a military hospital.
Like the plot, most of the characters work well. The main character, Claire, is a solid protagonist, perhaps just a little too perfect at times. The opening description of Claire feels more historical romance than serious historical fiction:
Had the others taken the time to notice her, they would have seen a 36-year-old woman filled with the confidence and glamor of success, tall, slender, strong, her arms and shoulders shaped from carrying heavy photographic equipment. Her thick dark hair fell in waves to her shoulders…
Add her tragic past — her own daughter died of infection penicillin could have cured — and she is almost set up as the stereotypical Stepford-like heroine. Almost. Her dedication to her job as a photojournalist (picture her climbing a ladder while wearing a ball gown), her love of a good gin and tonic, and her on-again. off-again relationship with her father make her a little more realistic (and likable).
The characters, the storyline, the numerous subplots all combine to create a very well done book, but it is the little asides, the seemingly insignificant passages that don’t always add much to the storyline that make the book remarkable and occasionally seem more modern than it really is. One scene that struck me outlined the fate of dogs in the event of an air raid:
Pets were forbidden in air raid shelters … In the event of an air raid, Life explained, dogs should be chained to the firmest fixture in the house, such as a bathtub foot. A blanket, a bowl of water, and chew toy should be left with them while their owners went to the shelter.
It seems like Americans didn’t know what to do with their pets during WWII and that Americans, myself included, still hadn’t figured it out by the time Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. (Even in 2005 pet owners often had to make the choice between evacuating to a hurricane shelter without their pets or staying home with them as at the time most shelters did not accept pets.)
Another place that made me wonder, in a rather cynical fashion, how much had really changed between the 1940s and more recent times was a meeting between the major pharmaceutical companies and the United States government concerning the development of penicillin. This scene, which includes the real characters of Dr. Vannevar Bush and John Smith of Pfizer, depicts the tension between the military and the pharmaceutical companies. Bush, acting on behalf of the government and the military, states: “These issues are of the utmost urgency. Our troops need penicillin now. Immediately. They’re dying without it.” The pharmaceutical companies, however, are often portrayed as caring much more about profit and patents than human life.
I would argue that Belfer wants her audience to make connections between her book and today’s world. She closes the book with an author’s note that details her research, tells which characters and situations are real, and ends:
Penicillin and the antibiotics that followed have changed the lives of virtually every human being in the past 70 years. Bacterial resistance to antibiotics developed from the beginning, however. Today, resistance is a major medical problem. Unless antibiotic use is curtailed, or new drugs are developed, humanity could easily return to the era when otherwise healthy adults died from a scratch on the knee.
Perhaps Belfer’s greatest gift as a writer and storyteller is her ability to balance the harsher elements of her story with the lighter moments — much like what Life magazine did with its stories during WWII. After all A Fierce Radiance is a war story, and there is a great deal of death in this book. Soldiers die, random individuals with infections die, people are murdered; the opening line of the book reads, “Claire Shipley was no doctor, but even she could see that the man on the stretcher was dying.”
Still, Belfer mixes bleak elements with some lively passages. Claire photographs the Rockettes at Christmas and does a fashion spread that focuses the Johnny Jeep hat. Her son visits the Hershey factory and is thrilled because chocolate is served at every meal — even breakfast. Of course, even in these moments, there are underlying messages.
Perhaps in a final nod to today’s world, the book reminds that even in difficult times, or perhaps particularly in difficult times, some of the best things are simple things — family, fashion, and candy for breakfast.