A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer is a historical novel set in New York City following Pearl Harbour. It centres around Claire Shipley, a divorced mother whose daughter died of blood poisoning when she was four. Raising her young son alone in the city, Claire works as a photographer for Life magazine and what begins as a simple story about a new drug being developed turns into so much more. Claire can't help feeling a connection to the penicillin story, it is a drug that could have saved her daughter, but she also finds herself drawn to the doctor in charge of the research, James Stanton, in what will become a complicated love story. Things are complicated even further when penicillin gets the attention of the government and it, and its 'cousins', present the possibility of huge financial gain for the company developing them and when a mysterious death occurs, it turns out that gain may have been motivation for murder. If only somebody can discover the truth...
Although A Fierce Radiance presents a bit like a murder mystery, the murder itself is at the back of the reader's mind for much of the story and doesn't even occur until about a third of the way through the book. In that sense it reminded me of another bulky historical novel I had read recently, The Fifth Servant by Kenneth Wishnia, where the murder is used as a reason for telling an important story but where the true interest lies is with the details surrounding the time. Likewise, the focus of A Fierce Radiance is on what life was like before the development of antibiotics, when a man could die of a blister from wearing new shoes, and the excitement that came with their discovery. The story was also really interesting when it came to what it was like in the United States during World War II, everyone surrounding Claire fully believes that the Nazis will attack and bomb them, possibly taking control of the city. Of course, readers now will know that this did not in fact happen, but Belfer makes the possibility feel completely real and scary.
Although I enjoyed the historical aspect of A Fierce Radiance, romance played a much bigger role than I expected and I wasn't not particularly enthralled by the love story (I rarely am). The romantic focus is the main reason I find myself unlikely to reread the novel as I felt it weighted down the story. I also felt that the book occasionally got off-topic, like Belfer had discovered something interesting she wanted to share even if it wasn't completely relevant to the story. Although the entire story is told in the third person, and the main character is definitely Claire, the focus shifts to different characters throughout the novel in a way I sometimes found distracting. There were also a few situations I found improbable, although they may have happened, I just didn't quite believe them within the context of the novel. The strongest part of A Fierce Radiance was definitely Belfer's eye for historical details which made the time period come to life and overall it was a rich and informative experience.
Release Date: June 1st, 2010
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This review was a part of TLC Book Tours. Click here to read what other tour hosts thought. For the purpose of this review I was provided with a copy of the book which did not require a positive review. The opinions expressed in this post are completely my own.