Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Fierce Radiance (Lauren Belfer) (9.2/10.0)

A Fierce Radiance: A NovelI read Lauren Belfer's debut novel, City of Light, because it was recommended to me by nearly every relative and acquaintance from my days up north.  Like Belfer, my family hails from Western New York, where the winters are long, the wings are hot, and the beer is Canadian.  I myself inhabited the hills and forests south of the Queen City (that's Buffalo for the uninitiated) until I reached the age of maturity, at which point I promptly pointed my '78 Chrysler Newport south and didn't stop until I reached the warm sands of South Beach.  But don't get me wrong, I still love Western New York--especially its people, whom Belfer captured perfectly--and I will always consider it home.  City of Light, then,  is the fictionalized account of the social life of a young schoolteacher set against the backdrop of the development of electric power at the turn of the century and the political power struggles that surrounded it.  I consider it to be the best work of modern fiction that has been written about the region or its history.   

All of that is a buildup to my review of Belfer's new novel, A Fierce Radiance, which treats the development and mass production of penicillin during the opening days of America's involvement in World War II.  Belfer truly has a gift for writing period pieces.  I can only imagine the amount of detailed research that went into this account of New York City in the days after Pearl Harbor--her detailed descriptions of the architecture of the period is matched by her eye for social nuance among the medical professionals, captains of industry, politicians, and journalists that comprise the story's main characters.  And her prose has a sort of silky, gloved feel to it that lulls you into believing, if only just for a moment, that you have a clear feel of what it was to have lived in those frightening and heady days of America's ascendancy.

It's not all perfect, mind you.  There were times that I found myself shaking my head at the inconsistencies of a particular character or the contrivances that wrap up what is a complex and twisted plot line.  But at the turn of a page, I consistently found myself back among the stone skyscrapers and the soldiers preparing to head off to war, and any author that can transport me so completely can be forgiven a few faults.  Overall, I found the book very enjoyable, and I continue to find Belfer an author worth reading.  

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