Thursday, May 10, 2012

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

Not Quite a Graphic Novel Month shines on!

I am not going to lie. I was geared up to hate this book. I saw it first in an airport in the graphic novels section but did not preview it. Always on the lookout for science graphic novels, I ordered it sight unseen from Amazon. When I got it, I opened it up and immediately thought, "Oh man, it's a picture book. What a ripoff!" So I set it aside for a few months. Now reading it, I see why it was put in with the graphic novels even though it really is not one. This book defies easy categorization, but I can tell you it's beautiful, informative, moving, and wonderfully strange. It is like a pictorial Moby Dick, a collection of disparate items and styles that hang together to give different aspects to complex narrative.

Ostensibly, this book is about two things: the lives and love of Marie and Pierre Curie, which act as the narrative thread connecting the second topic, the history of radioactivity. The Curies discovered polonium and radium, pioneering study of the elements and radioactivity. For their efforts they won Nobel Prizes, but they also fell victim to health problems from being exposed to radiation over long periods of time. They were titans of the field, lending their name to an elementary unit and beginning study of a phenomenon that has transformed the world, leading to medical advances, renewable energy, terrible disasters, and the most destructive weapons on the face of the planet. This book touches on all of these areas, and more. Today, Marie Curie is sometimes unfairly regarded as a token female scientist, and Pierre as her husband/collaborator, but as this books shows, such slight regard is unfounded and insulting. This book reanimates their stories and celebrates their lives and achievements in appropriate fashion.

Lauren Redniss, this book's creator, is an author and artist who has been published regularly in The New York Times. She also is the author of the book Century Girl: 100 years in the Life of Doris Eaton Travis, Last Living Star of the Ziegfeld Follies. From 2008-2009 she was a fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars & Writers at the New York Public Library, and she became a New York Institute for the Humanities fellow in 2010. Redniss speaks extensively about her impetus for creating this book here.

Redniss's artwork is beautiful and haunting. Much of the artwork is cyanotype, a photographic printing process that produces a ghostly effect meant to echo the glow of radium or an x-ray. She also makes good use of collage to portray historic and informational text pieces. From the artwork, her account of the artistic process, and the copious footnotes in the end pages of the book, Radioactive is an obvious labor of love for her.

This book has garnered some impressive praise. It was a 2011 National Book Award Finalist. Dwight Garner raved that "the word 'luminous' is a critic’s cliché, to be avoided at all costs, but it fits Ms. Redniss’s book pretty snugly. This is a story with a hefty half-life." Dr. Mary Jo Nye called it "a book that truly is out of the ordinary, and it is well worth reading and contemplating." Marcia Bartusiak added, "Finishing the book, I went back to the beginning and read it again. Just as I did with my favorite picture books as a child." Kathy Ceceri called Radioactive "a rich and complex story of life, love, and science told through narrative and imagery. It is a powerful and beautiful book."

Some preview pages are available from the author here. The book's publisher HarperCollins provides numerous links here.

Why it's not quite a graphic novel: Radioactive is not a graphic novel, but it is not quite a picture book either. It is a collection of beautifully rendered art that tells a story by itself but not necessary in sequential order. There are also substantial text pieces that could stand alone. All together, this book provides a unique experience as a well researched piece of nonfiction, an affecting love story, and an evocative series of images.


  1. Leaving aside the book itself for a moment, how awesome is it that there's a graphic novel section IN AN AIRPORT!?!

    1. Also, thanks for commenting! I read your blog all the time and I even own a copy of Comics Book Fanthropology! :)

  2. I know, that is pretty awesome! We have come a long way from maybe finding a collection hidden away in the humor section of a bookstore...