A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer
Author: Lauren Belfer
Genre: Fiction (Historical / Medical / WWII)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper Perennial (4/1/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Did I finish?: Sadly, no.
One-sentence summary: The race to make penicillin, through the eyes of a magazine photographer and researcher.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: Yes -- very pretty -- although it's another missed opportunity cover, I think. The image seems very much like the kind of photograph the heroine would take, but a medically-themed photograph would have been cool.
I'm reminded of...: Tracy Chevalier
First line: Claire Shipley was no doctor, but even she could see that the man on the stretcher was dying.
Why did I get this book?: First, the genre merging of historical novel, medical mystery, war thriller; plus, the setting, WWII New York City; and finally, the sound of the heroine.
Review: This solid historical novel (and I do mean solid, it's a very satisfying brick of a paperback!) has a yank-you-out-of-your-chair awesome first line, a fascinating premise, and enough historical details to educate as well as enthrall. At times.
Sadly, I didn't love this novel as much as I wanted to. This story suffers a bit from over research, in that it felt to me like the author tried to stuff in all the interesting details she'd discovered, unable to resist all the tempting tidbits. As a result, though, every paragraph has the feel of 'name dropping' -- either literally, or metaphorically. As the novel progresses, and once the back story for Claire and James Stanton, our hero, is dispensed with, it's not as bad, but I found myself describing my reading as 'slogging' as I worked through the first 100, then 200 pages.
I found the heroine, Claire Shipley, to be a little too pretty and a little too feisty to actually be interesting. Men lusted after her; women instinctively liked her. She's both a stunning beauty that no one can miss and yet somehow is perfect at melting into the background to become forgotten as she does her staggering photography work. She lives for her work; she lives for her family. I think the author was trying to conjure up '30s glamor, say Lauren Bacall meets Martha Gellhorn, but rather than charm me or impress me, I found her off-putting.
The story beyond that of Claire and James, however, was fascinating, whether you're interested in medical history or not. The size of the novel allows for some real exploration of the science, politics, and history of both penicillin development and American pharmaceutical companies, and it offers an angle on WWII that is fascinating and new.
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