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Book Cover Image: A Fierce Radiance by Lauren BelferTitle: A Fierce Radiance

Author: Lauren Belfer

Synopsis (Courtesy of IndieBound):

“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.”

Thoughts: For anyone born after 1945, can you imagine a life where getting the smallest cut could mean a life-or-death struggle? Where one lived in simple fear of the common cold because it may turn into something more insidious? Of every change that has occurred during the twentieth century, the mass production of penicillin tops the list among technology that has the greatest impact on human life. Lauren Belfer’s A Fierce Radiance explores the pre-penicillin world, giving insight into what life was like before and during the search for the technology that would allow penicillin to become available to the masses rather than an experimental drug given only to the military.

A Fierce Radiance has the feel of an old-fashioned thriller. Ms. Belfer takes her time establishing the characters and the plot, allowing the reader to thoroughly immerse him/herself into the story and the time period. The action builds slowly but never drags, making each page a treasure as the reader explores life in the U.S. after Pearl Harbor. The threat of war coming to the U.S. mainland, combined with the shady needs of the government, and the nefarious plans of the pharmaceutical companies enhances the tension to this taut thriller.

Speaking of the pharmaceutical companies, even though this is a murder mystery, the true bad guys are those who hope to/did make a fortune on the new types of antibiotics that were created as a result of the search for the next big weapon against infection and diseases. The eagerness with which they are described as willing to charge $200 per shot for something that cost them $0.02 to product is appalling, let alone the lengths they were willing to go to protect their research. The reader is left to extrapolate that very little has changed in the pharmaceutical industry. It is a telling picture of an industry that remains controversial today.

A Fierce Radiance is a picturesque novel that hearkens back to a time when people appreciated a well-plotted, well-written drama. The factual portions of the novel are well-researched and intricately intertwined with the fiction, blurring the line between fact and fiction in the most realistic manner. Claire’s struggle as a working single mother will resonate well with modern readers, as will her fractured relationship with her ex-husband and her attempt to balance her work with her family. Claire is immensely likable, as a woman who is fragile from her past and current relationships but has a steel backbone when it comes to protecting her own. She proves that a woman does not need a man to protect her or to fulfill her life’s purpose, and as much as most readers enjoy a “happily ever after” ending, Claire is forceful enough to thrive without her fairy tale ending. Even with the differences in culture from the U.S. in the 1940s to today, Claire is a strong heroine.

A Fierce Radiance is one of those novels I enjoyed from beginning to end. It felt like I was dropped into life after Pearl Harbor and am now able to better appreciate the sacrifices, the fear and anxiety, and the sorrow that filled that time period. Life before antibiotics is virtually unrecognizable, but as Ms. Belfer points out in her afterword, with bacteria becoming more and more resistant to current medications, we very well could one day reach a point where a simple paper cut could mean a life-or-death struggle again. It is a scary notion, and one I can better appreciate after reading this excellent novel. Claire’s story fits well with the time period, not romanticizing the war effort or creating happiness during a time period in which very little happiness was occurring. Historical fiction fans, as well as fans of mysteries and thrillers, will definitely enjoy A Fierce Radiance.

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