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History, Mystery and Mold We Take For Granted

July 23, 2010

A Fierce Radiance
Lauren Belfer
Harper Collins
June 2010 $25.99 544

I picked this one up at BEA, without knowing much about it, except it was historical fiction.
I love it.
Set in the early years of World War II, this is the story of Claire Shipley, who is a photographer and single mother. The first story we see her covering is cutting-edge medicine, using a new medicine to bring a man back from certain death. As she works to set up photographs, she wrestles with memories it dredges up. Her own daughter died from the same infection the new drug is designed to combat.

The new drug?

Penicillin.

The meticulous detail, at the historical, and character level, of this novel blew me away. Claire is one of the focal points of an ensemble cast of characters in this view of early 1940s New York city. Amid the tensions of World War II, she’s covering a story that could change everything. Doctors at the Rockefeller Institute have begun to use penicillin to reverse the course of infections that have been certain death up to this point.

I think that was the most startling aspect of this story for me– just the certainty, the inevitability, of a simple infection exploding into a scary, septic fever, mystifying and challenging doctors. Miscarriages. Cat scratches. Simple sidewalk scrapes. Months in the hospital recovering. If there was any hope of recovery at all. The early attempts at penicillin only offering slight hope, before a loss of life. Diseases like meningitis, pneumonia, polio, killing children.  The urgent push of science is tied up in the war effort, and in memories of the fatalities of 1918’s Spanish flu as well.

It’s one of the things the novel does particularly well: anchoring each character’s past in memories without seeming to go off on tangents. That same eye for detail comes across in Claire’s character. She’s a photographer. Even when she’s not working, she notices light and has an eye for framing shots, for seeing things like the angle of sunlight while walking her son to school.

With all that detail and character driven history to read, I didn’t entirely need some of the more typical novel plots, of romance and mystery.  Both were decently plotted, and, I suppose, good for the linear plot. I was honestly content to wander around historical New York with the characters and the developing medicine. From today’s perspective, the way medicine and hospitals were organized is fascinating, even lavish-seeming. But there are seeds of the big drug companies’ evolution. (Odd to see Mr. Merck talking about drug patents at a meeting.)

As for New York itself- I enjoyed a glimpse into how it has changed over time. Claire is raising her son in a neighborhood many of her male colleagues find dubious- the west Village. She remembers her mother having Margaret Sanger over for dinner. Her son loves walking to Waverly and Waverly. Claire and Jamie have their first romantic dinner at Grand Ticino. I’m pretty sure my parents have done the same. I had to look up the Rockefeller Institute, the story’s central hospital, to fit the scene into my mental map of the city.

A single woman, trying to make her way in a world thrown into tumult by World War II. Photography. Romance. Detailed historical fiction, centered on characters who are earnest, fragile, scared and loving. I noticed a lot of similarities between this novel and Nothing But A Smile, which I read earlier this year and also loved. I wonder if reading them back to back would be an interesting exercise. Book club potential?

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