Bruce's Reviews > Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout

Radioactive by Lauren Redniss
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's review
Oct 27, 2011

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Read from October 12 to 25, 2011

I picked this up because (a) it's gotten glowing reviews as a National Book Award nominee for artistic and substantive excellence, (b) I enjoy nonfiction, especially nonfiction that evokes existential nuclear dread, and (c) I had hopes my 12 year old daughter would devour a graphic novel about Marie Curie. What can I say? I suppose I had higher expectations than this book could possibly meet. Such is life.

For a glimpse at Redniss' visual style, browse through the publisher's 'look inside'. Redniss used cyanotype as the basis for her illustrations, a technique that involves exposing chemically-painted paper to sunlight for a period, masked by photocopied transparencies of hand line-drawing to generate a bluish batik. She has enhanced this in turn, with overpainting and digital color manipulation, and the result is certainly unlike either the benday dot or painterly approaches more typical of lavishly illustrated books. Not more sophisticated, mind you, just different. The idea of illustration via UV radiation is surely resonant with the book's title and theme, but apart from bluish bleed off Redniss' childlike line, it struck me as more of a conceptual than a visual resonance (and in fairness, I don't really put much stock in conceptual art that fails *also* to move me on its own merits).

Another Goodreader has commented on how Rothko-like Redniss' illustrations are, and I'm inclined to agree. I think the illustrations have tremendous value in establishing and underscoring the mood of the work as a whole; they are by no means incidental or distracting. However, I have to say I found the work as a whole to be somewhat on the thin side. Redniss breezes through the lives of the Curies (and even less thoroughly, their children, the Joliot-Curies) with all the depth of a Wikipedia entry, if Wikipedia assembled their articles by quoting diary excerpts, letters, and interviews. This is not to disdain the author's reliance on primary sources, only to observe that the book is constructed very much like an elaborate collage. As such, it is far more impressionistic than didactic, and so did not meet my expectations for a biography.

The Curies and their progeny remain ciphers as presented here, unfortunately. Notwithstanding the frequent thematic digressions (whether to help Marie give a nod to her Polish homeland by rattling off noteworthy Poles or to juxtapose the loneliness and devastation Marie must have experienced after the accidental death of her husband with the Chernobyl zone of exclusion, among many other brief lowlights in the history of nuclear physics), there is little sense here of a shared passion, obsession, fascination... anything that explains or lends understanding to a systematic life's work that systematically bled away her health and the health of those for whom she is said to have cared. Her investigations of radioactive elements must have made her figuratively as well as literally an enlightened soul, but this biography is utterly lacking in any sense of euphoria.

My daughter has glanced over my shoulder and tsk-tsked at my review... she thinks I'm too hard to please. Indeed I hope that this work will prove more impressionistic in memory than I experienced it in reality so that any resulting fondness might influence her future interests (she could do worse than to follow in the footsteps of Pierre, Marie, Irene, or Paul (Joliot) Curie). It's too bad the Edwardian language makes it less accessible to young adults, certainly unquotable.

You know what would have made this book really work for me? If it had been written as verse, as an epic unsung libretto that more fully evoked its characters and subject matter. This would have better complemented the mood of the illustrations and marked greater contrast with the frequent digressions about Hiroshima, Three Mile Island, Eniwetok, etc. that strained connection to the biographical subject matter. Re-assembled in verse, Redniss might have done for the Curies what John Adams' and Peter Sellars' Doctor Atomic did for Robert Oppenheimer.

Helas, this book does not succeed for me as a gesamkunstwerk. Because its elements taken separately are a bit lackluster (especially in light of my high expectations), I just found it unfulfilling.

To hold a galaxy in one's hands
And feel its incandescent brands
Will etch indelibly, in shadow spins
And each, in cast, invisibly, sins.

Was Curie's a poetic soul? Upon reflection, I'd like to think of her so.

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