British scientist Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin in 1928 but was unable to develop it further. Penicillin research shifted to the United States. Mass production of penicillin was achieved, but initially it was limited by the government to be used only to treat soldiers. Research into alternative antibiotics eventually produced Aureomycin and Erythromycin. This novel is a tale of events surrounding this historical change in the history of medicine.
Sounds like a dull book? Wrong. A Fierce Radiance takes us on an incredible journey involving a mystery, a murder or two, blackmail, a love story, a look at a dysfunctional family, and a woman ahead of her time in the 1930’s and 1940’s. I was unable to put this book down and finished it in four sittings, the last sitting being the last half of the book.
Claire Shipley, a Life Magazine photojournalist and divorcee, raising a son, is assigned to cover a story of a new medicine, penicillin, which is under experimentation to cure a number of ailments including tuberculosis, pneumonia, septicemia, staph infections and the like. However, the slow production of the serum generated by the green mold proves insufficient to accommodate the massive and frequent doses required over time to bring a victim back to normalcy.
However, a young female scientist at the Rockefeller Institute is working on an alternative antibiotic which has properties more applicable to the needs of medical doctors and their afflicted patients. Unfortunately, the young lady is pushed off a cliff although police have declared it an accident.
Enter the young lady’s brother, a handsome young doctor, James Stanton, who is introduced to Claire Shipley as she photographs the lab and personnel involved in the production of penicillin.
The love story which follows is one of the sweetest, most genuine descriptions of the involvement of two people in a relationship that appears to be heading for a happy ending. Both Claire and her young doctor have doubts about his sister’s accidental death, and each pursues connections which clarify their suspicions.
Meanwhile, Claire and her estranged father have forged a new bond, strengthened by her father’s interest in his young grandson. This scenario is also complicated by the fact that Claire’s father, Edward Rutherford, has acquired an interest in the company that produces penicillin. This fact raises questions about his honesty in his business dealings, both by Claire and her young doctor.
An interesting sidebar – the book takes us through the events of World War II by injecting at regular intervals the latest happenings on the war front, a strategy designed to ground us in the reality of the wartime milieu. In addition, actual persons living in the time period are drawn into the story – Henry Luce and Clare Booth Luce, Margaret, Bourke-White, John D. Rockefeller and George Merck, for instance. Authentic historic incidents are also woven into the tale – the Coconut Grove fire in Boston, Pearl Harbor, the fall of Bataan, the influenza epidemic of 1918, Japanese internment camps. New York City sites were mentioned with such familiarity that the reader is transported to that great place to savor the sights and smells that permeate the metropolis.
Another great phenomenon. Lauren Belfer does not tie up all the loose ends in the last chapter of her book. Not everyone lives happily ever after. This is refreshing.
Oftentimes, a second novel following a smash hit does not live up to our expectations. I believe that A Fierce Radiance has far outstripped Lauren Belfer’s first novel, City of Light, and foreshadows even greater output from her in the future.
Novel – A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer