THE REVENGE OF THE RADIOACTIVE LADY
By Elizabeth Stuckey-French
Doubleday. 334 pp. $25.95
Critics of the work of Jonathan Franzen — and I don’t entirely dismiss them — have claimed that the pungent misanthropy in his fiction undermines its quest for relevance and moral authority. What if, I’ve heard friends and critics muse, a writer approached a novel with Franzen’s scope, ambition and outrage yet with a sunnier, more empathetic worldview? What might such a novel look like?
Well, Elizabeth Stuckey-French’s “The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady” provides an answer, if not the definitive one. Though her novel is not quite the intellectual or linguistic tour de force that “The Corrections” or “Freedom” is, here nonetheless is an ambitious, dark, contemporary American comedy told from the perspectives of a multitude of idiosyncratic characters. Here is a portrait of a dysfunctional family painted against a broad backdrop of vital social issues. Here is a husband contemplating an affair, a wife considering leaving her family, a once-revered patriarch descending into dementia. Here are insightful riffs on pop culture and rants against American hypocrisy and superficiality.
And yet Stuckey-French writes with such effervescence and treats her characters with such generosity that, at times, it’s easy to forget that the author has far greater ambitions than merely entertaining readers.
The author takes as her inspiration an ignominious episode during the 1940s when researchers at Vanderbilt University fed radioactive drinks to unsuspecting pregnant women as part of a nutrition study. Fifty years later, survivors and their children filed a class-action lawsuit against the university, claiming the experiments resulted in myriad health problems, including some deaths from cancer. The suit was settled in 1998 for $10 million.
Stuckey-French’s titular radioactive lady is the sprightly 77-year-old retired high school English teacher Marylou Ahearn, who was subjected to a similar experiment in the 1950s, one that she blames for the bone cancer that killed her 8-year-old daughter. Unsatisfied with the settlement she received, Marylou seeks to mete out her own form of justice. She moves to Tallahassee, Fla., changes her name to Nancy Archer, heroine of the classic 1950s B-movie “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman,” and hatches a plot to kill Wilson Spriggs, the doctor who experimented on her.
It is a sign of this novel’s quirky, indie-movie sensibility that, even when Marylou is contemplating murder, she sounds less like a potential killer than a player in a game of Clue. Poison? Too detectable. Garroting? Too brutal. Smothering? Risky. Locking Dr. Spriggs in a shed with dangerous chemicals? She tries; it doesn’t work.
Unable to settle on a satisfactory murder method and dismayed to discover that Dr. Spriggs suffers from Alzheimer’s and is now more pathetic than hateful, our heroine trades in her “Arsenic and Old Lace” schemes for a subtler yet more malicious form of revenge: She will insinuate herself into Spriggs’s family and destroy it. “It was easy enough figuring out the best way to mess with each member of that family,” the author writes. “She hadn’t spent twenty-five years as a high school English teacher for nothing.”
Like her heroine, who maintains a “false cheeriness that made [people] feel comfortable with her,” Stuckey-French bops merrily along, even as her plot turns darker and more disturbing. Her consistency and capacity for forgiveness are admirable. And yet these very qualities force the author to perform some difficult gymnastics to prevent the novel from completely abandoning comedy and descending into the realm of the horrific, particularly after one character is revealed to be a sexual predator. Although her writing can be detailed and precise, upon occasion the author quickly cuts away from potentially key dramatic scenes, describes them after the fact or leaves them to the reader’s imagination.
Ultimately, the novel’s tone undercuts the seriousness of its aims and the intensity of its drama. The most convincing aspects of “The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady” are not its grand aspirations but its more intimate moments: astute observations of the neuroses of married couples and their children, wittily rendered critiques of contemporary suburban life. Yet these are hardly damning criticisms. In fact, the same might be said of many excellent contemporary American novels.
Langer’s most recent novel is “The Thieves of Manhattan.” He divides his time between New York and Bloomington, Ind., where he’s at work on a new novel.