When divorced photojournalist Claire Shipley is assigned a story about the medical team at New York City's Rockefeller Institute which is about to test penicillin on a human patient for the first time, in the early winter of 1941, she also has a personal interest. Her three-year-old daughter Emily died of blood poisoning after a minor accident, and she is fascinated that there could soon be a away to prevent that fate for others. She's not the only one interested, either. The United States has just been pulled into World War II, and the government believes that penicillin and its "cousins" - other mold-based antibacterials that are still being researched - have great potential to reduce the war's casualty count. The pharmaceutical companies, for their part, see major commercial opportunity in these emerging wonder drugs.
Claire's work for Life magazine draws her into the story, and her relationships with two men - Rockefeller researcher James Stanton and her father, Edward Rutherford, an early venture capitalist - pull her more deeply into it. Her personal connection is deepened not just by her guilt over her lost daughter, but her protectiveness toward her remaining child, her son Charlie.
Belfer covers a lot of territory in A Fierce Radiance. She explores the research-and-development work that helped lay the foundations of the modern pharmaceutical industry. She draws a portrait of wartime life on the home front, and a detailed picture of 1940's New York City (which is when and where my parents grew up). She follows the investigation of a mysterious, sudden death that may be somehow connected to the drug research. And she ties it all together by bringing it back to Claire Shipley.[
The author takes an interesting approach to the narration, frequently shifting perspectives; sometimes the shifts occur within a single paragraph as she elaborates on the thoughts of two characters involved in a scene or conversation. Readers who prefer "show" to "tell" might be a bit annoyed by this, but I appreciated it. It really helped make the characters more vivid and layered to me, and helped me develop more empathy toward some of them than I might have had otherwise. Claire is a particularly well-drawn and complex character, which matters since the story is built around her. As a single mother with a thriving career, she may strike one as unusual for her time, but perhaps more approachable for our own, and I found her quite convincing. I found the development and complications of her relationship with Jamie Stanton - two "older" (pushing forty!) professionals with serious responsibilities, in wartime - convincing as well.
At 544 pages (finished copy), this is a chunkster, but it was a fast and fascinating read, and an all-around terrific story. I easily lost myself in it, and I think it'll be a hard one to shake.