Penicillin is the precious substance that glimmers in the thick of things in Lauren Belfer’s novel of espionage, bacteriology, and romance in the midst of World War II. Tracing a steady path of intrigue, this story of a mycological researcher’s murder gives way to an epic context in which the scales tip precariously in the war against germs and Germans.
Claire Shipley, the heroine of A Fierce Radiance (a title that may be meant to suggest the infection-fighting wonder drug as much as it does Claire herself) is a LIFE photojournalist and single mother in Manhattan. She is content staying close to home doing fluff spreads on chorus lines and society balls, while letting others chase the more relevant images of the day. Her focus, however, is suddenly redirected when an assignment on Rockefeller Institute scientists who are busy testing the not-yet-manageable fungus draws her into more adventurous terrain. The drama of a dying patient’s near recovery moves her deeply—in part because she is aware that the medication might have saved her own daughter, for whom a minor scrape worsened into a fatal infection. To Claire’s disappointment, LIFE shelves her heartfelt photo-essay for national security reasons. It is 1941, after all—the US is gearing up for war and does not want to chance giving the enemy any clues about antibiotics.
Claire’s talent, nonetheless, catches the eye of Vannever Bush, our government’s wartime technology czar (indeed, a major historical figure; no relation to the two presidents). Bush taps her to spy on pharmaceutical companies—i.e., Pfizer, Merck—to determine if they are conducting secret antibacterial research in a corporate race for patents, and disobeying the government’s command that they concentrate efforts on penicillin. The shadowy zone in between profiteering and patriotism is mapped out and judiciously elucidated in the novel by Claire’s father, an instinctual capitalist so sharp that he corners the milk bottle market after learning from his daughter that milk bottles are used to culture the new miracle mold. Likewise, Claire is not out of touch with the limits of her own idealism, and knows that should the wrong side win the war, she can depend on her father’s wealth to protect her and her son.
The author’s glimpses into the sanctums of the mighty have a plausible air, and readers may be impressed by Claire’s smooth dealings with such bigwigs as Time Inc. publisher Henry Luce. Yet her appeal is formulated on her common touch, and Belfer takes pains to delineate Claire’s egalitarian mindset. A lifelong Greenwich Villager raised by a mother who moved in Bohemian circles, she is bored by the monied, uptown crowd. A serious career woman, she has little patience for the chess playing slackers and “intellectuals” who inhabit her neighborhood’s cafés. She has a gift for rapport building with colleagues and underlings, and possesses a verbally alert style reminiscent of Myrna Loy. Sexually liberated and lonely, she falls for a scientist who is brilliant, modest, and ripe for distraction. But the caprices of history keep them mainly apart, and their yearning is tempered by the dire, encompassing realities of war.
Belfer is era-precise with an evenness that is an atmospheric feat, and the national psyche as it was once mediated by LIFE’s covers and photo spreads—with their flickering of reassurance and alarm—is terra firma for this writer.
Lauren Belfer is reading 7/10 at Merritt Books at 2pm (Red Hook) and 5pm (Millbrook), and 7/14 at 7:30pm at Oblong Books, Rhinebeck.
- "A Fierce Radiance" by Lauren Belfer.