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.