Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout, Lauren Redniss; !t Books, An Imprint of Harper Collins, 2011, New York, New York, 203 pages.
I am spending a year and a half as a graduate journalism student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. UW-Madison has something called “Big Read” every year for which librarians choose a book for the entire campus to read. This year, the librarians chose Radioactive, a pictorial biography of Marie Curie, two-time Nobel prize-winner. Author Lauren Redness visited the UW-Madison campus for a reading, which I was
unable to attend. “She’s a wisp of a thing,” one person who did manage to attend Redniss’ reading told me the next day. “You could hardly hear her. She’s a writer. She’s not used to public speaking,” another commented. After reading the book, which is also somewhat wispy and quietly powerful, such comments do not surprise me. Something frail and very private on display here. It may have to do with Redniss’ attempt to paint the colors of Madame Curie’s heart. Curie’s passion for science was deeply intertwined with her marriage to Pierre Curie and to her affair with fellow scientist Paul Langevin, and with her children and grandchildren, who followed Curie into science. Redniss also takes a serious stab at presenting a short history of radioactivity and understanding its “fall out.” The story is haunting and haunted, ghostly and ghastly.The illustrations have a sketchbook quality to them. The many well-chosen quotations likewise have a jotted journal quality to them. Redniss allows us to peer into Curie’s glowing laboratory so full of fascination, into her close marriage to Pierre Curie, into her grief after Pierre Curie’s untimely death, into an ill-fated love affair but successful scientific partnership with Paul Langevin, into Marie Curie’s early death from radiation exposure, and into the deeply intertwined lives of Curie’s children (and grandchildren). Redniss further intertwines the history of radioactivity, the bomb, and its other uses.
Radioactive is a well-researched meditation. Like poetry, it will stand up to multiple readings and occasional browsings. The drawings are seductively simple and beautiful. The reader walks away moved and with understanding. Minimalist in certain ways, Radioactive is proof that less is often more. It is a satisfying and thought-provoking book.