Gorgeous Radioactivity

Radioactive, Lauren Redniss

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout
Lauren Redniss

I have been wanting to read this book ever since I first heard about it six or so months ago. Unfortunately, my library did not have a copy, and I kept waiting and waiting for the one they ordered to arrive. When I went the other day to pick up a hold, the librarian said, “Oh – it says you have two holds – let me go see what the other one is.” To my absolute delight, it was their brand-spanking new copy of Radioactive. I gleefully snatched it up and started reading it over lunch.

Line drawing in black ink on white background of Marie Curie sitting at a desk with a pen in hand, writing in a notebook. Her face is in three quarters view and she is staring at the reader.
Those eyes! They’re staring into your soul!

Immediately, I was drawn into the book. The opening pages are in beautiful tones of blue, and green, and orange. They glow much as you imagine vials of radium glowing. Then, when you actually get into the first “real” pages, Marya Sklodowska, aka Marie Curie, stares at you through a completely captivating black and white drawing.

As much as I loved this drawing, I was a bit worried that I wasn’t going to get any more of the intense color of the introductory pages. I actually flipped ahead, and was relieved to see plenty of color.

Lauren Redniss has done an amazing job tying her artwork with the story of Marie and Pierre Curie. She tells about their personal lives, their work, their interests, and the future implications of their research.

I was amazed at how much work they had to put in to their experiments. The tools they needed often didn’t exist, so they made them. They were interested in anything that could enlighten them and cast light onto their experiments, even if that meant attending Spiritualist sessions where tables somehow levitated and scientists tried to measure the weight of ghostly presences.

The first x-ray of the human interior

They worked along side other accomplished scientists, including Albert Einstien, and Wilhem Röntgen, who discovered the x-ray. It was an experience to be holding the pages of the book with my left hand, next to the first x-ray, which was of the left hand of Anna-Bertha Röntgen, Wilhem’s wife.

There were some jarring elements. I’d be going along, happily reading about the Curies, when suddenly I’d turn the page and be reading about the Manhattan Project or something else. The little extras were interesting, and certainly form a major part of the fallout from the Curies, but they felt out of place somehow, as if they weren’t fully integrated in the rest of the book.

Another nit-picky criticism is that the text was often unevenly spaced, in places where it made no sense to space it that way. It was sometimes hard to read, because the words would be almost squished together.

Still, I rated the book overall as 4 stars. Usually I give books 4 stars because there’s some little tidbit that keeps them from being 5 stars. In this instance, the book, while very good, probably was only 3 stars on its own. I bumped it up a notch because of the incredible artwork.

This copy is going back to the library, but I’m going to need a copy on my shelves to add a little beauty.

Want more like this? Try:

  • Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace. This time it’s a murder mystery, but based on a real case in the mid 1800s. Some of the characters are very interested in the intersection of Spiritualism and science. 
  • Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Non-fiction, approachable science. 
  • Laurence Yep, Hiroshima. A slim young adult novel dealing with the aftermath of the US’s atomic bombing of Japan, and the Hiroshima Maidens.
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3 thoughts on “Gorgeous Radioactivity

  1. I'd never heard of this before, it sounds fantastic! I appreciate the comment about spiritualism, too, because I'm reading a biography about Kate and Maggie Fox (American spiritualists) right now as part of an ongoing study. I loved Alias Grace as well (in your "more like this"). That drawing is rather striking 🙂 I'll be sure to check this one out!

  2. @Emily Jane: Glad I could bring this one to your attention. I don't know much about Spiritualism, but it sounds pretty interesting. I read another book recently that dealt a bit with the topic, Karen Russell's SWAMPLANDIA!. @Logoligi: It did make a good combination. I'll be on the lookout for more like this.

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