Book Review: Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie (A Tale of Love and Fallout) by Lauren Redniss

Art and science have never blended together so well. Not only is this a fascinating glimpse at Marie and Pierre Curie’s life, the juxtaposition of text and illustration make this book a truly unique reading experience. 
RadioactiveRadioactive: Marie & Pierre Cure, a Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss

Published: December 21st 2010 by It Books

Source: local library

Synopsis (Goodreads): In 1891, 24-year-old Marie, née Marya Sklodowska, moved from Warsaw to Paris, where she found work in the laboratory of Pierre Curie, a scientist engaged in research on heat and magnetism. They fell in love. They took their honeymoon on bicycles. They expanded the periodic table, discovering two new elements with startling properties, radium and polonium. They recognized radioactivity as an atomic property, heralding the dawn of a new scientific era. They won the Nobel Prize. Newspapers mythologized the couple’s romance, beginning articles on the Curies with “Once upon a time . . . ” Then, in 1906, Pierre was killed in a freak accident. Marie continued their work alone. She won a second Nobel Prize in 1911, and fell in love again, this time with the married physicist Paul Langevin. Scandal ensued. Duels were fought.

In the century since the Curies began their work, we’ve struggled with nuclear weapons proliferation, debated the role of radiation in medical treatment, and pondered nuclear energy as a solution to climate change. In Radioactive, Lauren Redniss links these contentious questions to a love story in 19th Century Paris.

Radioactive draws on Redniss’s original reporting in Asia, Europe and the United States, her interviews with scientists, engineers, weapons specialists, atomic bomb survivors, and Marie and Pierre Curie’s own granddaughter.

Whether young or old, scientific novice or expert, no one will fail to be moved by Lauren Redniss’s eerie and wondrous evocation of one of history’s most intriguing figures.

My thoughts: I’ve read a few biographies of Marie Curie, but none so delightful as Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Cure, a Tale of Love and FalloutRedniss combines meticulous research, gorgeous illustrations, original source documents, and hand-lettered text to create an engaging and intimate portrait of the first woman to earn two Nobel Prizes.

The narrative follows Marie Curie’s childhood, her fascinating relationship with her husband, his death, and her continuation of their research. It chronicles her disappointments,  triumphs. and ultimately, her death. Then it takes the reader even further by seamlessly weaving the implications of her research into the story by referencing events from World War II to Chernobyl.

Steeped in beauty and irony and passion and drama and romance, this is science writing at its most accessible, and its most beautiful. Not only will scholars be interested in the way Redniss constructs Marie Curie’s story, Radioactive will also entice teen readers to explore the story of the life of one of the most important women in history.

The art is excellent, both it terms of technique and composition. The story is compelling, and will grab the interest of both casual readers and serious researchers.

I was delighted to stumble across Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Cure, a Tale of Love and Fallout, and if you’re at all curious, I suggest you check it out.

Recommended for fans of: graphic biographies or memoirs, experimental books, illustration, or books about women in science

Second opinions:

Smart Bitches, Trashy Books: “I can’t overemphasize how well-written and delightful and moving the love story is.”

An interview with the author at NPR—see what you think for yourself

The New York Times: “…it’s a deeply unusual and forceful thing to have in your hands. Ms. Redniss’s text is long, literate and supple. She catches Marie Curie’s “delicate and grave” manner as a young student, new to Paris; she notes the “luminous goulash” of radium and zinc that one chemist prepares; she observes with pleasure another man’s “thriving mustache.” She has a firm command of, but an easy way with, the written word.”

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