4 reviews

A Fierce Radiance: A Novel (P.S.)
by Lauren Belfer

Published: 2011-03-29
Paperback : 560 pages
6 members reading this now
8 clubs reading this now
3 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 4 of 4 members

A Washington Post Best Novel of the Year
An NPR Mystery of the Year

In the anxious days after Pearl Harbor, Life photojournalist Claire Shipley finds herself covering one of the nation's most important stories. At New York City's renowned Rockefeller Institute, researchers are racing ...

No other editions available.
Add to Club Selections
Add to Possible Club Selections
Add to My Personal Queue
Jump to


A Washington Post Best Novel of the Year
An NPR Mystery of the Year

In the anxious days after Pearl Harbor, Life photojournalist Claire Shipley finds herself covering one of the nation's most important stories. At New York City's renowned Rockefeller Institute, researchers are racing to save thousands of wounded American soldiers and countless others by developing a miraculous new drug they call penicillin. For Claire, a single mother haunted by the loss of her young daughter—a death the miracle drug could have prevented—the story is cuttingly personal, especially after she unexpectedly begins to fall in love with the shy and brilliant head physician, James Stanton. But Claire isn't the only one interested in the secret cure. When a researcher dies under suspicious circumstances, the stakes become starkly clear: someone understands just how profitable the new drug could be—and will stop at nothing to get it. Now, with lives and a new love hanging in the balance, Claire will throw herself into harm's way to find a killer—no matter what price she may have to pay.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.


Chapter I

Wednesday morning, December 10, 1941

The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, New York City

Claire Shipley was no doctor, but even she could see that the man on the stretcher was dying. His lips were blue from lack of oxygen. His cheeks were hollow, his skin leathery and tight against his bones. His eyes were open but unfocused, like the glass eyes in a box at a doll factory she’d once photographed. Although his hair was full and dark brown, not gray, Claire pegged him at over eighty. His head swayed from side to side as the orderlies slid the stretcher out of the ambulance and onto the gurney. Beneath the once-white blanket, his right leg was grotesquely swollen.

Making a split-second appraisal of the scene, guided by intuition, Claire crouched and pivoted until she found the best angle. Using the 35mm lens, she stopped down on the Leica to increase the depth of field. She took a quick series of photos, bracketing to guarantee the exposure: the patient in profile and a half-dozen nurses, doctors, and orderlies gathered around him, like a group portrait by Rembrandt, their faces saying their thoughts. They knew he was dying, too. Out here in the cold without their coats on, with the man looking dead already and nobody else nearby but Claire, they dispensed with their usual cheery and encouraging expressions.

The group proceeded into the hospital. Claire followed, the others oblivious to her. She was like a spy, paid to fit in, to hide in plain sight, her identity and her loyalties concealed. Her ability to hide in plain sight was a paradox, even to herself, because she was physically striking. Had the others taken the time to notice her, they would have seen a thirty-six-year-old woman filled with the confidence and glamour of success, tall, slender, strong, her arms and shoulders shaped from carrying heavy photographic equipment. Her thick dark hair fell in waves to her shoulders. Her face was broad, her features well-defined, the type of face that photographs well. She wore her usual winter uniform of loose navy-blue trousers, cashmere sweater over silk blouse, and a beige fleece-lined jacket with eight pockets. It was a hunter’s jacket, and she’d ordered it from a specialty store. Claire Shipley was a hunter: searching and waiting for the proper angle, the telling moment, for a narrative to give sense to the jumble of existence.

Upstairs, the group crowded into a private room. In one coordinated heave the orderlies shifted the patient from the gurney to a bed. The man moaned. At least the orderlies were quick. The staff bustled around the bed, taking the patient’s pulse, drawing blood, rearranging his useless limbs. In the enclosed space, the rotting stench he gave off assaulted Claire. She felt a constriction of revulsion and forced herself to ignore it, because the man’s eyes were alive now. Golden-brown eyes, shifting slowly, their movement consuming his energy. His eyes followed the voices of the nurses. When Claire’s daughter, Emily, was a newborn, her delicate face peering from a wrap of pink blankets, her eyes had followed Claire’s voice around the room just so while Claire’s husband held her.

Claire felt a piercing ache. Her daughter had died seven and a half years ago. June 13th would mark eight years. Rationally, Claire knew that seven and a half years was a long time. Nonetheless sudden, intense memories jarred her, bringing Emily back with painful clarity. Claire’s husband was gone, too, although by now she could usually keep a mental door closed on the anger and despondency that followed his departure. Automatically Claire did a maternal check-in: her younger child, Charlie, was safe at school. Later he would be at home following his usual routine with Maritza, their housekeeper, who was like a grandmother to him.

At the recollection of tucking a wool scarf into Charlie’s coat this morning, Claire confronted the dying man before her.

Excerpted from A Fierce Radiance, copyright 2010 by Lauren Belfer. HarperCollins Publishers. All Rights Reserved. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

From the author:

1. A Fierce Radiance is set in New York, at the onset of World War II. Talk about America during wartime. How was the war a part of the lives of Claire and Charlie Shipley, Jamie Stanton, Edward Rutherford, Bill Shipley, and other Americans? Did any of your relatives serve in the war? What about on the home front—do you know how your relatives' lives were affected during that time?
2. Contemporary Americans are also living during a time of war. How have the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq impacted Americans today? Contrast the two times. Do you think Americans today feel as part of the war effort as they did in the 1940s? Explain.
3. What is your opinion of Claire Shipley? Do you think she was like other women of her time? How did her background influence her choices, including her work? How did her career shape her outlook on the events that were happening around her? Claire was a woman trying to succeed in a man's world, and she exploited her femininity when she needed to. Do you think this was this a sign of power, or of weakness?
4. Before reading A Fierce Radiance, did you have any idea that penicillin and other antibiotics were discovered less than a hundred years ago? How did these medical miracles change our lives? Have any members of your families been saved by antibiotics? Are we too reliant on drugs like antibiotics as well as antibacterial household products today? Will these drugs always be as effective as they have been? How do you think can we extend the potency of the drugs we have available to us?
5. Do you think 21st-century Americans take their good health and advanced medical care for granted? Could you imagine living or raising a child when the simplest of conditions—a flu, a scraped knee, a cat scratch, a blister from tight shoes—could lead to death? How do you think you would cope living with such knowledge? Have we as a nation, forgotten the transformation that the discovery of antibiotics and vaccines have made in our lives?
6. The government lackey, Andrew Barnett, tells Claire that there is no morality during war. Do you agree with this? Is "winning at any cost"—if it includes murder and letting a killer go free—a victory?

Suggested by Members

Was it ethical to test a new drug on Japanese people in concentration camps like Manzanar?
Describe the heroine.
Is greed inevitable in a capatalist society?
by csparks (see profile) 09/24/10

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Note from author Lauren Belfer:

Dear Reader,

I’m delighted that my novel A FIERCE RADIANCE has been published in paperback.

My first novel, CITY OF LIGHT, was a New York Times bestseller and Notable Book as well as a #1 Book Sense pick. CITY OF LIGHT remains a favorite with book clubs.

A FIERCE RADIANCE is a World War II love story and thriller set against the secret wartime battle to develop the arsenal of weapons – weapons of life – which have come to be known as antibiotics. The novel focuses on one woman, Claire Shipley, a photojournalist for LIFE magazine, a strong and compelling figure who struggles both for professional fulfillment and to raise her son during a time of upheaval. From the dazzling streets of Manhattan to the battlefields of North Africa, A FIERCE RADIANCE illuminates the struggle of one family stay together amid the passions, betrayals and triumphs of war.

I’m honored to report that A FIERCE RADIANCE has been named a Washington Post Best Novel of the Year and an NPR Best Mystery of the Year.

Many thanks,

Lauren Belfer


“Enthralling….an especially compelling read.”

Nancy Horan, author of Loving Frank

Book Club Recommendations

Serve "ration" snacks -- no sugar, no eggs, no chocolate, no butter, no coffee
by [email protected] (see profile) 07/16/11
We opted for pretzels and mint tea. Try a "Ritz cracker apple pie." Bring an eyebrow pencil to try your hand at drawing a nylon stocking seam on your own leg -- this was hilarious!
A woman who is ahead of her time observes the dramatic development of new antibiotics.
by csparks (see profile) 09/24/10
We meet at one another's houses and usually everyone brings a dish to share. We have some fine eating and fascinating book discussions which we relate to our own lives. We do not always agree but all are good debaters and therein lies the interest.

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "You can die from a scratch"by Becky H. (see profile) 07/16/11

We learned a lot about how dramatically life changed with a the availablity of antibiotics. Life was scary before penicillin! The war looms always in the background. Life photographers took an amazing... (read more)

  "An enjoyable read"by Donna N. (see profile) 04/06/11

All the members of our book club liked this book and we had a great discussion session about it. We all recommend it.

  "A Fierce Radiance"by Anne H. (see profile) 10/27/10

The subject matter of this book was very interesting and worthy or a good discussion. However the love story woven throughout the story was a little to much.

  "A fierce Radiance"by Connie S. (see profile) 09/24/10

This book contained an intriguing ethics argument. We saw the compromises that people had to make in times of stress. They were difficult and similar to those we have had to make. Histori... (read more)

Rate this book
Remember me

Now serving over 80,000 book clubs & ready to welcome yours. Join us and get the Top Book Club Picks of 2022 (so far).



Get free weekly updates on top club picks, book giveaways, author events and more
Please wait...