Monday, April 25, 2011

A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer

A Fierce Radiance is a historical fiction thriller about the development of penicillin set at the dawn of WWII. Claire Shipley is a divorcee, mother, and a photojournalist at the very popular Life magazine. She has never quite recovered from the death of her three-year old daughter, Emily, from septicemia. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, Claire is sent to photograph the use of Penicillin on a patient at the Rockefeller Institute in New York City.

There, Claire learns about the miraculous drug, Penicillin, that could have saved her daughter’s life, and that could save the lives of American soldiers during the war, putting the enemy at a distinct disadvantage. She also meets and falls in love with the handsome researcher, Dr. James Stanton. At this point in time, the government put together a Manhattan type project to get Penicillin developed from just a mold growing in a bedpan to something that could be manufactured and widely distributed. They also had to discover how to dose people with it and what exactly it could cure by testing it on a variety of problems. Claire is given the assignment of photographing this top secret research for publication after the war, while Jamie tests the new drug across the country and at the front.

Claire soon learns that the stakes to develop penicillin and get the patent on its “cousin” antibiotics are high. Her home is ransacked and a key researcher with a great new discovery dies under very mysterious circumstances. Was this researcher killed in order to profit off of her new discovery or by spies who would love to take her discovery to Germany? You will have to read the novel to find out!

I loved this novel. Belfer was perfectly able to capture New York City at the start of WWII. The people have concerns that we have long forgotten about or take for granted. It’s hard to imagine now that the American people were certain at that time that America would be invaded by its enemies. Having Claire Shipley as a photojournalist for Life was a perfect way to bring this sense of urgency and uncertainty to life as she photographs interesting stories across the nation as well as tries to keep it all together on the home front. Belfer’s research by reading all of the Life magazines and New York newspapers during that time as well as her life experience as a photojournalist in the past is perfectly blended together to create a compelling portrait.

Belfer also dipped into what it means to be a photojournalist documenting, but not becoming a part of the story. I must admit, I have often wondered about this as I see new reporters at scenes of tragedy, not helping. Belfer wrote a great scene about this as follows,

“Nurse O’Brien, forced to step around Claire for the third time, confronted her by the window. ‘Doesn’t it bother you, to be taking pictures of them and never helping them? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?’ she asked, the lovely Irish lilt in her voice turned to anger. . .
Claire thought, Was she ashamed of herself? She had to believe that she was helping this people, if only by creating empathy in those who read their stories. Maybe inspiring others to help them. If she didn’t believe this, she couldn’t go on.”

I loved the subject matter of this story. To think that an adult or child could die from an infected scratch is mysterious to us at this point in time. Reading about the development of Penicillin was very intriguing to me. I loved the details, but I also loved that Belfer was able to make something that could have been a very dry read into an intriguing look into a world without antibiotics. One of my favorite passages describes this:

“Doctors could do nothing, or next to nothing, to help their patients. Serum treatments. Several vaccines, including those to fight diphtheria, tetanus, and smallpox. Recently sulfa drugs, with their toxicity and limited effectiveness. Pneumonia could put an otherwise healthy adult in the hospital for a month.... President Coolidge’s son had died from a blister he developed while playing tennis in new shoes. A scratch from a rosebush could kill you. . . Tuberculosis was rampant and contagious. Last May, Claire walked Charlie to school and learned from the other parents that Miss Robertson, his art teacher, had been ‘sent to Saranac.’ Claire knew what that meant; everyone knew what that meant. Saranac was a village in the Adirondacks where TB patients received treatment in isolation from their family and friends, so they wouldn’t infect them. Some patients stayed for decades. . . Could a medicine from green mold fight all that? The idea was outlandish. Incomprehensible.”

I loved Lauren Belfer’s first novel, City of Lights, which came out about ten years ago. It was a historical fiction thriller set at Niagara Falls involving the construction of energy facilities in the 19th century. I was glad to see she was back and am happy that I had an opportunity to review her thrilling second novel.

As readers of this blog know, I am a giant fan of the Outlander novels by Diana Gabaldon and her iconic lovers Jamie and Claire. So I was intrigued that the romantic duo in A Fierce Radiance are named ... Jamie and Claire.

Overall, A Fierce Radiance is a moving, intriguing, and wonderful historical fiction novel. I highly recommend it as well as Lauren Belfer’s first novel, City of Lights.

A Fierce Radiance is my ninth book read for The Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2011.

I read A Fierce Radiance as part of the TLC Book Tours. I am the last stop on the tour, but if you would like to read further reviews of this book, check back through this other great blogs on the schedule.

Lauren’s Tour Stops
Tuesday, March 29th: Diary of a Stay at Home Mom
Tuesday, March 29th: Bookworm’s Dinner (guest post)
Thursday, March 31st: Rundpinne
Wednesday, April 6th: Bibliophiliac
Monday, April 11th: That’s What She Read
Tuesday, April 12th: Books Like Breathing
Wednesday, April 13th: In the Next Room
Thursday, April 14th: Man of La Book
Monday, April 18th: Unabridged Chick
Tuesday, April 19th: Teresa’s Reading Corner
Wednesday, April 20th: Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books
Thursday, April 21st: Debbie’s Book Bag
Friday, April 22nd: Bookish Ruth
Monday, April 25th: Laura’s Reviews

Book Source: A Review Copy from Harper Collins. Thank-you!


  1. I've seen mixed reviews of this book, but it sounds worth giving a try. I hope it's okay to link to your review on War Through the Generations.

  2. Anna - that would be great!!! I could see how there could be mixed reviews. I like a meaty novel, and this is definitely it. Science also really interests me, so I found this to be a fascinating read.

  3. I like the period very much and the subject matter is a new one for me. I think I'd like to read this very much.

  4. Wonderful review, Laura. The premise of this book sounds fascinating, and it seems that you thoroughly enjoyed it. I am also a fan of Outlander, and liked the detail about the characters' names.

  5. This sounds like a book I would definitely be interested in. I'll be adding it to my TBR list. Thanks for the great review!

  6. I'm so glad someone else noticed the Outlander connection! Your review has convinced me that this will be a seriously good book - I was interested in it before, but you've definitely got me wanting to read it RIGHT NOW.

    Thanks so much for the fantastic review!