Summary: 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. -- Harper
Have you ever read a book and loved it so much that you wanted to share it with everyone? Well, that's how I feel about A FIERCE RADIANCE by Lauren Belfer! I'm not even sure that I can articulate how much I appreciated this book. Maybe I should just wrap up my review with two words, "READ IT!" I just loved this book and thought it was so good!
I do have to say that I love historical fiction books -- it's definitely one of my favorite genres. And I'm beginning to think that I love ones that take place around World War II. (Maybe because it was such a huge time of change for the world?) What I enjoyed so much about A FIERCE RADIANCE is that while it was a book about the United States and its role in World War II, it wasn't your "typical" WWII book. A FIERCE RADIANCE actually covered events that aren't well known and definitely not in any of my history books. I guess I knew in the back of my mind how important the discovery of penicillin was, but I also know that I take the availability of antibiotics for granted (which I will never do again!) In addition, I had no idea how the production of penicillin was related to the war and how long and complicated the path to mass production was.
Besides all of the fascinating historical information in this book, I also loved the more "human" side of this book. In so many ways, A FIERCE RADIANCE was a love story, and by that I don't just mean a romance. It definitely had some romantic elements which I loved, but it was also a love story between family members -- a mother and child, a brother and sister, a father and daughter, and a grandfather and grandson, etc. This book showed the heartache and loss that many families experienced because of the war and illnesses; however, it also showed the strength and resilience of these same people. As I read this book, it became so very real to me how many families lost loved ones prior to the discovery of antibiotics -- and for what we now consider minor things like scrapes and cuts.
I also really loved how this book demonstrated so many of the social changes that were occurring in the 194os. This book definitely delved into many of the ethical dilemmas about war, medical research, and the economics of big business. In addition, the author did a wonderful job of making these dilemmas even more complex because she inserted some personal issues into them well. This novel really made me think not only about what is right for the individual versus what is right for society, but she also made me ponder to what extent I would go to save a loved one's life.
Another fantastic thing about this novel were the characters. Occasionally when I read a historical fiction book, I don't find that the characters are as well developed as I had hoped. That certainly wasn't the case with A FIERCE RADIANCE. Ms. Belfer created some memorable characters (namely Claire) who really resonated with me. In addition, she created many supporting characters who were also very well developed and extremely complex. I loved how even the most flawed characters were multi-dimensional; and like many of the issues in the rest of the book, their actions weren't always clear cut.
I really have to give a tremendous amount of credit to Lauren Belfer for writing this novel. Granted, the idea behind the book is fascinating to me (the beginning of penicillin production), but she really managed to bring the story to life. Her descriptions of New York City, World War II and even the research laboratories were terrific; but she also managed to create a story with some mystery, intrigue and romance. I also think she managed to capture the essence of this time period perfectly. It was evident to me that she did an amazing amount of research to write about World War II and the origins of penicillin because the book was just chock full of historical references (check out these surprising facts.) This book really had it all -- at times it read like a history book, at times a science book, at times a romance book, and at times a thriller. A FIERCE RADIANCE really encompassed everything I could hope for in a novel!
A FIERCE RADIANCE was the first book that I've read by Ms. Belfer, but it won't be the last. I was very excited to discover that she has another novel called CITY OF LIGHTS which tells the story of Niagara Falls in the early 1900s. This novel also has been given rave reviews, and I absolutely can't wait to get my hands on it. If CITY OF LIGHTS is even half as good as A FIERCE RADIANCE, I just know I'll love it!
I seriously think A FIERCE RADIANCE would make an excellent book club pick. My only hesitation in recommending it is its length -- it's over 500 pages. However, I promise that the book didn't read like a huge chunkster. I think because the book is so well written and so interesting that it seemed a much quicker read. There is an excellent reading guide available which delves into some of the very same things I thought about while reading this novel. Some of the topics you might want to discuss include the importance of medicine, the role of women through modern times, the effects of war on society, the economics of war and pharmaceuticals, and especially medical ethics. This book definitely touched on a great deal of very important ethical issues which would certainly make for a fascinating discussion.
Needless to say, I highly recommend A FIERCE RADIANCE! This is definitely going to be one of my very top books of the year -- maybe even my favorite; and I think readers who enjoy historical fiction are going to agree! I know many of you picked up this novel at BEA and I'd love to hear what you think about it.
Thanks to Kelley & Hall Book Publicity for sending me a review copy of this novel.