A Fierce Radiance
by Lauren Belfer

Harper, 2010. ISBN 978-0-061-25251-8.
Reviewed by Penny Leisch
Posted on 07/26/2010
Review of the Month, August 2010

Fiction: Historical; Fiction: Mystery; Fiction: Thriller

A Fierce Radiance, by Lauren Belfer, pulls the reader deep into the realities of the 1940s, when people in the U.S. lived with war, rationing, and too much death. Many younger readers only remember this era from a history textbook, while others lived through it and remember the patriotism and challenges. Belfer transports the reader into the daily lives of doctors, soldiers, government officials, and reporters—the people who make history and record it.

Penicillin is on the verge of becoming a miracle drug, and the government feels an obligation to protect the soldiers on the front lines, above all else. This drug isn't only a miracle; it's a weapon of war. Saved lives mean more troops to stop the enemy. However, the green mold is still produced only in small quantities in milk jugs and bedpans. The government needs large quantities of consistent medication. Politicians rationalize that money to fund a concentrated effort will get results faster. After all, it's everyone's patriotic duty to support the war effort, including the businesses; and, patents can't be granted for natural substances anyway. Why shouldn't the drug companies give everything to the government? In fact, the government mandates them to do just that.

When a romance between Claire Shipley, a distinguished reporter at Life magazine and James Stanton, the doctor the government chooses to head the penicillin research, develops, the couple becomes a prime target for unsavory politics and espionage. However, power struggles can backfire. After the doctor's sister, Tia, a brilliant scientist and collaborator in miracle drug research, falls from a cliff near the lab, more than one person wants to know the truth about her death; however, their reasons are very different.

Life in the 1940s, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, is a dramatic blend of efforts to survive, patriotism, and excesses of major proportions. The war can either separate families or unite them. Few men are exempt from a call to the front lines, and most want to serve. Doctors still make house calls, and every effort is made to keep illnesses confined to homes to prevent massive outbreaks of flu, polio, and TB. Children still die from a minor scratch or cut, and the news of a possible miracle drug set off riots and protests. Ethical or not, Japanese internment camps became drug testing labs too.

As usual, nothing is without personal impact when a person is truly invested in a job. Claire lost a seven-year-old daughter to septicemia from a scraped knee. No medicine existed that could have saved her. When Charlie, her son, gets pneumonia, there is at least a glimmer of hope, but at what cost? The government controls penicillin. There are rumors of a cousin drug, but it's untested, possibly dangerous. Then, James finds out that the cousin may be the discovery that cost Tia her life.

A Fierce Radiance combines high drama, murder, mystery, emotion, and fast-paced action. Belfer powerfully portrays the way people change in pursuit of love and miracles. Her ability to move the story along keeps you wanting more and reading way too late into the night. She also includes historical notes that are well planned and helpful, and they won't ruin the story if you read them first. Belfer's book is amazing in scope, detail, and research.

Lauren Belfer's debut novel, City of Light, became a bestseller. Her fiction has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, and Henfield Prize Stories. Belfer's nonfiction work has also been widely published. She grew up in Buffalo, New York and now lives in New York City. Learn more on her website.

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