A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer

Lauren Belfer’s A Fierce Radiance tells the story of Claire Shipley, a divorced mother who works as a photographer for Life magazine. Claire initially took great risks to get just the right photographs, but she has settled into more mundane assignments closer to home so that she can take care of her young son, Charlie. Haunted by the death of her daughter Emily, Claire takes a keen interest when she is assigned to take pictures for an article on penicillin, the wonder drug that could have saved her daughter’s life. She invests in developing the story long after her publication pulls the plug. As penicillin proves to be a lifesaver, big industry will stop at nothing—even murder— to control its distribution and lucrative profits.

Belfer’s novel immediately caught my attention, combining science and history as it does. I was drawn into Claire’s suffering from the loss of her daughter, her struggle to work and balance life with her remaining child, and her involvement in the dangerous and high stakes world of penicillin production.  Penicillin was a temperamental drug to research and grow, and many lives were lost as it was being developed—mainly because there was never enough of it to go around.  The stakes were drastically increased once the government seized not only penicillin research but all additional products created from that research.

As engaging as I found some aspects of Belfer’s novel, I was distracted by the writing and ultimately didn’t enjoy it as much as I would have liked.  This is a huge story, and while there was a concerted effort to tell as much of it as possible, the amount of characters popping in and out of the narrative proved too overwhelming. I got to know some of the characters very well, but then they’d disappear for long periods of time,  and quite a few had only brief sections and were never seen or heard from again. The time jumps which moved the story forward were jarring, and the shallow third person narrative was an impediment to getting close to the characters; it was easy enough to observe their actions, but I was never able to make a strong connection with them because of the narrative disconnect.

Belfer’s instincts are great—A Fierce Radiance is varied, interesting and intricate. This is an enjoyable and informative novel, but its full potential was hindered by some of the storytelling choices. These may prove less of a distraction for a different reader, but for me, they kept a good story, and an intriguing idea for a novel, from reaching greater heights.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Shutter Island, by Dennis Lehane

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  1. What an interesting premise! But I must admit I don’t like the sound of these easy come-easy go characters. I like to know who’s who when I’m reading; the author can play with the plot as much as s/he would like, going back and forth in time or skipping between reality and fantasy, but I really want a clear and developed cast of characters.

    1. Exactly Trisha. The story was interesting, but I needed a bit more focus – with less characters, that I really know, you can pretty much do with me what you will. But I know that this is just a style thing and many have and will (continue) to love this one.

    1. It is a good story. Kathy, if you can keep up better than I did with a big cast, then you shouldn’t shy away from it.

  2. I’m sorry that you didn’t enjoy it as much as you had hoped. I absolutely loved this book and I didn’t find her writing style to bother me. After reading your review, I started questioning mine? Maybe I wasn’t smart enough to get all that!

    1. That just not true, Julie. You are as sharp as a whip when it comes to your reading observations. i am often in awe of your reviews and just how much you get from the books you read. I think this mainly comes down to style, and what bothers your or doesn’t bother you in reading. I usually find large casts of characters distracting. All the information was amazing, but I think I would have been happier if she focused on a little less in the book.

  3. I guess I found the title unmemorable, but when I started reading I said “oh yeah, the penicillin book!”. The reviews have been pretty decent so far, but your review gives me pause. Like Julie, I won’t notice certain things until it is suggested. I’m going to probably wait around and think about this one some more.

    1. Sandy, the story is an interesting one. I am happy that I read it, but I just needed less characters and a bit more focus. I don’t do well with books that have a huge cast of characters. I think it’s a style thing.

  4. I read this a couple of months ago and could not, for the life of me, come up with a review that adequately reflected my impressions of this novel…..but you just nailed it on the head. How ’bout for my review, I just put up a big ol’ link to yours? LOL….

    1. Go for it! LOL. This one was just way too much story and too many characters for me. It was a little overwhelming, even if interesting.

  5. I’ve been on the fence about this one. I think I’ll stay there. I like the premise but I’m unsure of how I’d react to the book itself and the writing style. Hummm.

    1. Knowing your editing background, I would probably warn you away because some of the phrasing was a little awkward for me. There was something about the third person narrative that is probably correct, but that was little off for me in this book. Of course on the other hand I am totally curious as to what you think.

  6. Excellent review, Nicole. I’m a lover of character-driven fiction, and a well developed character can keep me up reading late into the night while plot always becomes secondary. When I can’t connect with a character, I have great difficulty finishing a book.

    1. Yes, exactly Beth! I think this one suffered a bit for me from having too many characters, many of whom I didn’t connect with so much as wanted to see how they furthered the story.

  7. Oh you had me all along with this on e- it sounds wonderful and too bad it didn’t deliver as you hoped. I too get distracted by many characters…. they just become hard to keep track of.

    1. I think it is totally a matter of how you like to read. Lots of characters are always and issue for me because you never like all of them the same, and it is hard to balance their time with the story.

  8. I do want to read this but suspect not at one sitting. It is waiting for me at the library (although not the convenient one; what was I thinking) but maybe I will wait for the paperback so I can own and read at leisure.

    Enjoyed your review!

    1. The story is interesting and informative. I enjoyed it, but I was definitely reading against some of my writing peeves, which was the main prob for me. Most will really like it.

  9. I’m sad to hear that the writing was a distraction. I have this one sitting on my shelf, and while I am overwhelmed by its size, I am also interested in its theme.

    1. I read through to the end because I really wanted to see what happened. I think she tried to tackle a huge story, and I think I would have connected more had their been less going on.

  10. I don’t know how I missed your review when you first posted it, but this is why I love your monthly re-caps!

    Thank you for linking to my review – I shamelessly gushed over this novel! A Fierce Radiance is one of the best novels I’ve read this year, I’m sorry that you didn’t connect to it the way I did. Lauren Belfer definitely casts a big net, but I never had that feeling like she lost any of her characters or any loose ends in the multitude of mysteries she had going. Maybe it was simply the right book for me, at the right time. Have you ever felt that way?

    Even if we didn’t feel the same way, Nicole, as always, this was a great review!

    1. Thanks for saying that! Monthly recaps are so time consuming, but it does seem like a great way for people to get caught up. I know I appreciate them on other sites. It is very easy to miss something.

      With this book, I definitely think reading style plays a part in it. I wanted to know what happened in Belfer’s story and that kept me going til the end, but I think I am particular when it come to large casts of characters. There is usually someone whose story I am less interested in, that detracts from the story.

      You’re in New York, right? Somehow that’s in m brain from somwehere. Did see her read and talk about the research for this novel? It was really fascinating!