Belfer’s grand, cinematic novel details the evolution of penicillin against an anxious backdrop of 1940’s New York City and the tumultuous years of the
Second World War. In the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, there’s an nervous air of discovery as the various stakeholders in this drama are caught in a race against time to produce commercial quantities of the new miracle drug for the
Although thematically A Fierce Radiance is about the destructive nature of disease and of war, Belfer’s tale is mostly framed around the passionate love story between beautiful
Life magazine photojournalist Claire Shipley and handsome Jamie Stanton, the lead physician at the Rockefeller Institute, who - as the novel opens - is pioneering the Institute’s research into penicillin.
Sent by her boss to follow the testing of this potentially revolutionary “green mold medicine,” Claire knows the real story is one which will weld emotion with power as Jamie and his sister Tia fanatically work to save the life of their first patient, Edward Reese. As they prepare to inject him, Claire photographs every step, quietly observing that the drug is made from fluid and is growing in the lab in milk bottles and bedpans.
There's hope that this new drug will transform the very nature of life itself,
but Claire inexplicably finds that her prized penicillin story is cancelled. There’s been a government intervention by the officious Vannevar Bush, who has adopted Jamie for a project that will mass-produce penicillin for the military. Accordingly, the government has offered to buy the penicillin at a fair price when ready. The
Allied troops need penicillin now and are dying without it; under Jamie’s watch, the drug will become part of
a new weapon of war.
The stage is set for a tale of espionage, murder and high finance in which history is unveiled, the earth itself consumed by the corporate profiteering of the Rockefellers, the Wilkies and the Baruchs, the raw power of America’s financial, industrial and political leadership. Meanwhile, Claire and Jamie become absorbed in the drama of their love affair as Claire continues to anguish over the death of her daughter, Emily, who died of a blood infection a few years back, her face a constant ghost in her mother's life.
Claire must put her family’s personal losses in perspective. Seeking solace with her young son, Charlie, Claire is ultimately blindsided by the shrewd manipulations of her father, Edward Rutherford, an intriguing man of mystery who boasts substantial wealth. Wallowing in the past, Edward seeks to gain Claire’s trust, desperate for his daughter’s approval. Still, Claire and Jamie can no longer bear the weight Edward's memories. Claire finds herself caught in the middle, enlisted as a reluctant spy
yet well aware that the connection between her and Jamie feels more and more precious as time passes.
Despite death looming before these characters, life and friendship echo through Belfer’s somewhat weighty story. Although it all feels a bit clichéd, there’s a vivid sense of place. Powerful and seductive, New York City is indeed an arc of radiance, inhabiting these people in sweeping romantic grandeur, similar in tone to Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.
Ultimately, morality and espionage prove to be tricky commodities in wartime. Belfer details it all in this enormous tale, a saga of love and death and war, a volatile mix of corporate greed
and an intense aura of hope.