A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer

Photo by Mariano Nocetti

Claire Shipley is a divorced mother working as a photographer for Life magazine. Once upon a time she took adventurous work assignments, but she has settled into stints closer to home so that she can be around to take care of her young son, Charlie. Claire is already haunted by the death of her daughter Emily, so when she photographs a story on the development of penicillin, a drug that could have saved her daughter from death, she takes a keen interest. Claire is invested in developing the story long after her publication has pulled the plug. The plot thickens as penicillin proves to be such lifesaver that big industry will stop at nothing to bring it under control, even murder.

Belfer’s novel immediately caught my attention. As I turned the pages and was drawn into Claire’s suffering at the loss of her daughter, her struggle to work and balance life with her remaining child, and the ups and the downs that comprised the high stakes world of penicillin production. Penicillin was a very temperamental drug to research and grow, and many lives that could have been saved were lost as it was being developed, mainly because there was never enough of the product to go around.  The stakes changed increased when the government commandeered all penicillin research and the products created from that research.

As interesting as I found the story to be, I was very distracted by the writing, and ultimately didn’t enjoy it as much as I would have liked.  This is a huge story, and while Belfer is commendable in her efforts to tell as much of it as possible with a behind the scenes vantage, the amount of characters popping in and throughout the narrative was overwhelming to me. The reader gets to know some of the characters very well, but then they disappear for a long time, and there were quite a few characters who only had a brief section- never to be seen again.  The jumps in time that moved the story forward were a little jarring, and the very shallow third person narrative was also a difficult choice for me. I was with the character and could observe what was going on with them, but was never really able to make a strong connection with them because of the narrative disconnect.

The story  here is great – varied, interesting and intricate. This is an enjoyable and informative novel, hindered by some of the storytelling choices. These may prove less of a distraction for a different reader, but for me they kept a good story and an intriguing idea for a novel from reaching all of its potential.

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