"A Fierce Radiance" by Lauren Belfer

Special to the Tribune

"A Fierce Radiance"
By Lauren Belfer
HarperCollins, 544 pages. $25.99

Like the doctors, scientists, detectives, soldiers, captains of industry, glamorous photographers and hot-blooded lovers who swirl through Lauren Belfer's World War II novel, 'A Fierce Radiance,' book critics have their own system of early warning signs. In deciding whether a book is worth their while, let alone their readers', many have been known to practice the first-sentence test--the more charitable among them, the first-page, the first-chapter, or the pick-a-page-at-random test. That is: if such samples from a new book under review don't past muster, it's fair to say that the work as a whole deserves only a passing grade, or worse.

'With A Fierce Radiance,' which follows her best-selling debut novel 'City of Light,' Belfer poses an exasperating challenge for such checks. The first sentence--"Claire Shipley was no doctor, but even she could see the man on the stretcher was dying"--is pretty grabby. Further down the page, you get Claire, a photographer for Life magazine, noticing, "His eyes were open but unfocused, like the glass eyes in a box at a doll factory she'd once photographed." A tad stiff, that one, but evocative. Turn the page, though, and there's stuff like "Her thick hair fell in waves to her shoulders," or Claire experiencing "a piercing ache." Soon enough, "Bravado was a trait Claire put on each morning with her silk blouse and tailored trousers." These promptly go easy on the eyes of a handsome doctor, James Stanton, who is "about six feet tall, lean, with brown hair brushed back," and before you can say True Romance, "His close physical presence stirred her." The full experience of the novel is a kind of whiplash--historical nuggets mixed with cliches, portraits of such real people as Henry Luce handicapped by icky dialogue, tense passions encountering predictable plot twists, and the incessant use of words like "upon" rearing its cumbersomeness when a simple "on" would do (sex scenes included). Belfer has profuse research on her side, and against her the tincture of 1940s popular fiction.

Still, who can't be grateful for a long, interesting, if over-full, historical novel that isn't about vampires?

Instead, the ubiquitous and primordial monster that stalks the story is death by infections. To avoid a million-fold such incidents as the novel's opener, medical wizards like James Stanton and his beautiful (of course) sister Tia are experimenting with the new drug penicillin. Watching those screwball comedies and churning melodramas of the period, we forget that these were still the days when a knee merely scraped in a tennis fall could develop overnight into fatal gangrene, and parents "defined seasons based on the diseases that preyed upon their children."

The Stantons and their colleagues are hoping for the eventual mass production of the mold-based penicillin and also "cousin" antibiotics, which the country's drug companies, for their own nefarious reasons, are likewise striving toward. The government, too, is involved, secretly funding penicillin testing (at its most unethical, on prisoners, C.O.'s and interned Japanese-Americans) that it recognizes could help save the lives of countless military mustered up after Pearl Harbor. The cure is at the same time a weapon of war.

Belfer doesn't back away from the sad and repugnant, or spare people repeated suffering just because they have a leading role. Claire has lost one child and may lose another. The Stanton siblings' parents died in the 1918 influenza epidemic, which Belfer graphically conveys. Claire's multi-millionaire father dropped out of her life for 30 years, and though he seeks to reconnect, is too aligned with a national culture of greed to make all the right choices. The semi-saintly Tia falls to her death from cliffs within a stroll of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research on the East River where much of the action takes place. But is it an accident or murder?

The literary affection Belfer lavishes on the era is considerable, and at its best in her descriptions of Claire as a photographer who functions with a hard-boiled curiosity and an artist's eye. She'll climb a ladder in a ball gown for the shot she wants. The Luce empire--journalistic, social, political--is neatly drawn as a source for the way we are and see now, media manipulation its own viral force. The stock types we're used to viewing in the old black and white movies gain depth and color. To Claire, who also works in black and white, Belfer eventually imparts the knowledge of life's grey areas. Despite many stylistic signs to the contrary, the expected quantities of simple and comforting aren't rationed out heedlessly in the way A Fierce Radiance ends.

Celia McGee is an arts reporter and book critic in New York.

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