A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer (Historical fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4.5/5

How have I never read this book? This will definitely be one of my top reads of 2022. Historical fiction immersed in the drive to commercialize the production of penicillin for the troops. Here’s a shocking statistic — over 50% of the deaths in the Civil War were from infection; over 30% in the “Great War.”

The story opens with Claire Shipley — photojournalist for Life magazine — covering the story of early trials on penicillin for humans. 1941 — just days after Pearl Harbor — a man makes an almost miraculous recovery from near death by the injection of penicillin — only to die days later when researchers literally run out of the drug: it is that difficult to produce. Together the U.S. Government, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (a real place — look it up), and reluctantly drafted pharmaceutical companies race to find a process to produce enough of the miracle drug to save the men on the front.

Part love story, part murder mystery, part home front war story, and part industry story, the author does an incredible job of making war-time New York City come to life. New York is a great setting for historical fiction as it is and always has been teeming with people, innovation, and secrets. While the main characters are fictional, the historical characters (e.g. Vannevar Bush, Henry Luce, Claire Booth Luce, Margaret Bourke-White, Margaret Sanger, Jack Reed) are presented realistically (without any fictionalized access to their inner thoughts). Beautiful writing — I highlighted a lot of quotes in the (physical) book but I was too lazy to transcribe them 😦

In addition to the description of the historical setting, what I loved about the book were the characters. Each had his or her own passion, and the author explored the depth of their work, their attraction to it, and the kind of personalities and background that made them so suited to it. The descriptions of Claire and her photos were completely absorbing and beautifully described; Dr. James Staunton leading the research at the Rockefeller Institute; his sister Tia the mycologist, exploring dirt samples from around the world to find other antibacterial “cousins” to penicillin; and Edward Rutherford, one of the very earliest venture capitalists, describing the process of making money from opportunity.

Completely captivating. This was her second novel, published in 2010. Novels 1,3, and 4 are all excellent as well!

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