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Bookmarks Issue: 
52-May-June-2011
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A-The Revenge of the Radioactive LadyElizabeth Stuckey-French, previously a James A. Michener Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, is currently an associate professor at Florida State University. She is the author of the novel Mermaids on the Moon (2002) and many short stories, including "Mudlavia," which received an O. Henry Award in 2005.

The Story: Fifty years ago, 77-year-old Marylou Ahearn was the victim of a horrendous crime: the government gave the pregnant Marylou a radioactive cocktail that resulted in the death of her daughter eight years later. Feeling that she has not much time left, Marylou finally springs to action: she moves to Tallahassee, Florida, takes an alias, and starts to execute her revenge on Dr. Wilson Spriggs, the doctor who prescribed her the "prenatal vitamins" 50 years ago. Alas, Marylou finds Dr. Spriggs old, demented, and an unsatisfactory target for her devilish plans. Instead, she decides to torture his already dysfunctional family--the doctor's daughter, whose marriage is falling apart, and her three children, two of whom have Asperger's syndrome.
Doubleday. 352 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780385510646

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Modern dilemmas rule Elizabeth Stuckey-French's darkly funny novel that manages to deliver some sharp observations on the fruits of vengeance along the way. ... [She] avoids caricature and instead shares fully formed and humanly unpredictable characters." Robin Vidimos

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady is populated exclusively by what used to be called oddballs, and therein lies its strength. ... Stuckey-French knows that if you dig deep enough, we're all oddballs, and that the world is a perilous and unpredictable place." Jincy Willett

New Yorker 4 of 5 Stars
"So much that happens in this book is wildly improbable--we encounter at various points a massive hurricane, a nuclear reactor built in a backyard, and a crafty pedophile--but un-fantastical, deadpan prose grounds even the zaniest plot elements in everyday realism. Even as we laugh, we're moved to wonder how our own uniquely dysfunctional families might react in such circumstances." Eileen Reynolds

St. Petersburg Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Not necessarily the stuff of comedy, but Stuckey-French makes her domestic satire work precisely by not backing away from its darkness--and also by giving us characters who are complex and believable enough to stay with even when the going gets weird." Colette Bancroft

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Stuckey-French's desire to keep the action moving makes some connections feel hastily drawn. ... But the author's insistence on rendering her characters as complex human beings with conflicting desires keeps the novel from reading like mere farce." Erin Almond

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"A highly skilled storyteller, the author hops seamlessly back and forth between six points of view--a feat that is not only admirable, but downright acrobatic. But as much as there is in this novel, there is also a good amount of untilled earth." Katie Crouch

Critical Summary

The story of Marylou is not all fiction. Between 1944 and 1974, more than 20 medical experiments charted the effects of radiation on pregnant women, including one at Vanderbilt University, where poor, white pregnant women were given cocktails of radioactive iron. One would suppose that a novel inspired by such dark subject matter would be solemn or angst-ridden; instead, The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady turns out to be "the best kind of page-turner--one with heart" (Boston Globe). A few reviewers felt that Stuckey-French could have delved more deeply into her characters, but most agreed that they are sensitively drawn and their actions wacky and unpredictable. Combined with the author's wit, the result is a masterpiece of dark humor.