This is the first adult book for author Liz Heinecke whose background is in molecular biology and bacteriology. She has written some in the past in the sciences for children, specifically in experiments parents and children can do at home to encourage the development of a love of science. Her background and her passion definitely cross over into this book. You can find her online at The Kitchen Pantry Scientist.
Radiant is creative nonfiction that focuses on the lives of two very different women and their unlikely friendship. It follows the well known physicist, Marie Curie, and a lesser known but still equally impressive dancer, Loie Fuller. While Curie would go on to win the Nobel Prize not once, but twice, for her work in physics and chemistry, Fuller would fade to relative obscurity outside the worlds of dance and art nouveau. However, it’s clear from Heinecke’s book that Fuller deserves a place of notoriety not just as an innovator in the creative realm, but she was a technological and scientific innovator as well. The book follows both their careers from the late 1800’s to the early 1930’s and profiles both their individual accomplishments and the ways their two fates intertwined to shape their legacies.
I’m really glad I stumbled upon this book. It’s a very unique true story in women’s history, and both of these figures deserve to have their stories told. I found both their stories to be quite riveting. Of course I had heard of Curie, but this was my first introduction to Fuller and I’m amazed I haven’t heard of her before this. At times, this book read very technical and scientific, which isn’t surprising considering Heinecke’s background. Honestly, it would be difficult to write this book without getting into the technical aspects of their innovations, so I don’t find it to be a fault with this book. As I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, I find stuff like that a little more difficult to follow than the human stories. I do feel Heinecke did a very good job making this accessible to all readers despite the very technical aspect of the subject matter, and that’s in part thanks to her using a creative nonfiction format in which she manufactures dialogue and additional scenes to bring the history to life. It reads like a novel despite its place as nonfiction.
Both women dealt with the various types of overt sexism that permeated their fields. In Fuller’s case, she was criticized for not being feminine enough, for not having the perfect body of the typical dancer, and mocked for her weight and height. For Curie, as a woman in the scientific community, her intellect and accomplishments were overlooked or were credited to a male colleague simply because it was believed a woman couldn’t possibly be in possession of the ability to reach such heights in an intellectual world. Both women had to be five times more cunning and had to work ten times harder to rise to the top of their fields, and they both succeeded. Though so different from each other, they both could understand the hurdles each had to overcome to be successful as a woman of their time.
At times, Fuller was overlooked as the intelligent and innovative woman she was simply because she was a dancer. Honestly, I feel we still do this to women in pop culture today. Shut up and sing/dance/act, and stop proving you’re actually a brilliant and fascinating human capable of stringing more than three words together. What a slut, go put on some clothes. Take off your clothes because you look like frump girl. Honestly, it’s exhausting seeing what we do to women, and even men, in the public eye. Both Loie Fuller and Marie Curie are evidence that this is hardly a new phenomenon. It’s always been nearly impossible for a woman to please the public. Thankfully, there have always been women who said “screw ’em” and did what they wanted anyway. And there were always some people receptive to their forms of art or their intellect. That’s how progress comes about. This is a story that celebrates that history of progress. I’m so grateful for women like Fuller and Curie who fought such a hard fight to gain respect for women during times when it was so much more difficult than it is today. We haven’t come all the way, but we’ve come a really damn long way.
This book does a great job presenting the two women as I believe they really were. Loie is a charismatic, larger than life, but slightly flighty woman of big dreams and extreme tenacity. Often tethered to reality and kept organized by her life partner, Gab, a severe and resolute woman who both adored Loie for her carelessness and despaired over it within the same breath. Marie is a serious and laser focused scientist with an equal amount of tenacity that manifests itself in different ways than Loie but still works to bind the two together. Though they exist in different spheres, they always find a way to reach out to each other as the years go by.
While Heinecke is a scientist, she still manages to pull off some pretty impressive creative writing. Overall, this book is a really lovely tribute to both of them, and it deserves a lot of admiration for the authentic and rarely shared story that it tells. 4 stars.
Published February 2021 by Grand Central Publishing. ISBN 9781538717363. 324 pages.
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