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Review: A Fierce Radiance, Lauren Belfer

a fierce radianceClaire Shipley, a divorced single mother, is a photographer for Life magazine. With the United States on the cusp of, and then deep into, World War II, she has plenty to photograph, but one story captures her devoted attention. It’s the development of penicillin, the miracle antibiotic which has the potential to save lives. After losing her daughter to septicaemia at the age of 3, Claire knows all too well what a difference this drug could make in people’s lives, but it’s incredibly difficult to manufacture and impossible to synthesize – moreover, the government has mandated that penicillin be affordable and patent-free. That means the drug companies are dangerously eager to research more profitable alternatives, and they’re not afraid to hurt the people Claire loves to get their hands on that potential. Can she balance telling the story with keeping her family safe?

This was a fascinating book. I knew that penicillin, and the other antibiotics we have today, was a game-changer for human life as it stood, but I’d never thought about it from this perspective. The idea that a scratch or a blister could end up killing a person is completely foreign to most of us now. I’ve never had an infection from anything; we even have antibiotic bandages and soaps. Viewing the world from Claire’s perspective, with her full knowledge that this could indeed save lives, was breathtaking and added a layer of intensity to a story that, for me, was already compelling.

That’s because Claire’s emotions don’t remain detached from the story for long. She falls in love with a handsome doctor in charge of the initial tests after photographing him at his work. This makes the hunt for antibiotics personal and close to home; moreover, Claire’s own father, absent from nearly all of her life, begins to make more of an impact on her, leaving her to make tough decisions that affect both her life and that of her son Charlie.

I found all of the characters in the book to be interesting, really; I enjoyed a turn in each of their minds. The book occasionally shifts perspective strangely, because it’s written completely in third person, but it doesn’t happen often enough to be a problem. It’s certainly worth considering everything from each of their perspectives, as in some ways the book is a deeper look at what motivates people to commit certain acts that are either condemned or praised. Life is not black and white, and it certainly isn’t here.

Written thoughtfully, with sympathetic and deep characters, against a truly fascinating backdrop, A Fierce Radiance is one for the historical fiction fans amongst us. And it’s still relevant; after all, with the over-prescription of antibiotics, we may well return to a world where each and every scratch could be a death sentence. Recommended.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book as a gift from Kathy. Thanks again, Kathy!

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7 comments to Review: A Fierce Radiance, Lauren Belfer

  • This does sound interesting. Good review!

  • I don’t read a lot of historical fiction but, between you and Julie, I want to give this one a try.

  • I read a nonfiction book last year about smallpox, and it was so interesting. Now you have made me curious about this one as well. Nonfiction books about science and medicine are always really intriguing to me, so I will be on the lookout for this one. Thanks for the great review!

  • Sorry I just went back and reread your article. Now I see that this one is historical fiction, which makes me even more intrigued. I need to learn to read more slowly!

  • I loved this book and like you, I found it fascinating. I was lucky enough last May to go on a walking tour of Greenwich with the author and she pointed out many of the places in the novel.

  • This sounds like a very interesting read. Thanks for the review!

  • I probably wouldn’t have thought a book about the discovery of penicillin would be particular exciting maybe interesting but not exciting, your review has changed my mind :-P