THE REVENGE OF THE RADIOACTIVE LADY is a darkly witty novel rooted in true events of the Cold War. I love Stuckey-French’s idea for this novel. It’s refreshing to read a book-club style title that has a main character with such a rich past, who isn’t the typical 30-40-year-old writer entangled in some drama.
Stuckey-French’s main character, Marylou Ahearn is seventy-seven-years-old and is determined to avenge her daughter, Helen’s death. During the fifties when she was pregnant with Helen, her doctor gave her a radioactive cocktail telling her it was vitamins. They didn’t ask for consent, and they never told her she was part of a study. She was simply pregnant in the wrong hospital during the wrong era. It turns out the study’s purpose was to determine if radiation ingested by the mother could cross the placental barrier and affect the child. Guess what? It does. And Helen paid the price as she slowly died of cancer at the age of eight. What’s worse? This study was real. It actually happened here in the U.S. at Vanderbilt University, and the women in the study were treated the same way as Marylou–with lies and without consent.
So, some fifty years later, Marylou tracks down the doctor in charge of the study, Dr. Spriggs, moves from Memphis to Tallahassee into a house across the street from where he and his family live, and begins to plot his murder while ingratiating herself into the family.
Marylou as a character is deeply funny. She is well drawn and you can hear her cranky old lady voice throughout the novel; here she describes seeing Dr. Spriggs for the first time:
“Still tall and lean, but no longer foppish! No visible ass. A sailor hat and thick glasses and ugly orthopedic shoes.”
However, it seems as though either Stuckey-French herself, or someone else told her, that the old lady wasn’t enough to hold an audience’s attention. This novel is told in alternating chapters from six different perspectives until the end when Dr. Spriggs becomes the seventh. It’s like she took this advice to heart and went in the complete opposite direction. (Spoilers in the next paragraph only – skip it if you care.)
This book has way too many outliers–too many main characters that are trying too hard to be interesting: there’s Suzi who’s a thirteen-year-old soccer star that ends up giving her pastor a blow job, Ava who has Aspergers and who we are told is stunning over, and over, and over again (Marylou convinces Ava to apply for America’s Next Top Model and have her photo taken nude by a professional photographer, who sends those photos to none other then, yes you guessed it, the creepy pastor); then there’s Otis who also has Aspergers works at a fast-food chain and is secretly building a nuclear reactor, Vic, the kids’ father, who is obsessed with tropical storms and on the verge of having an affair with his co-worker (the sister of the creepy pastor), and finally Caroline, their mother, who is swamped trying to take care of everyone and convinced that Marylou is her long lost mother that up-and-left her father when she was just a baby.
Needless to say, Stuckey-French tried to put too many ideas, too many catastrophes, in one book and it comes off as melodramatic, indeed like a B film as Stuckey-French comments about her own writing around page 300. While each of the characters could have had their own story and it could have been really good, none of the characters (except maybe Marylou) were quite fleshed out enough. The voices were all a bit too similar, especially in the first chapters–Marylou and Suzi literally sound like the exact same person save their age. There wasn’t enough variation in diction or descriptive outlook for these characters to be believable–the only thing separating one from the next being their ascribed oddity.
Nonetheless, it was an entertaining read, and I got through it in a flash. Some descriptions and one-liners are really, truly on point, and I appreciated them. For example, Suzi is sitting in the strip mall church with Marylou, “Her bare feet, in the ugly sports sandals her mother made her wear were freezing, and, not being an old lady, she hadn’t thought to bring a cardigan.” I just wish we’d heard more from Marylou with less distraction. The first plot twist at the end did actually surprise me, though I wish it ended there and the last three chapters didn’t exist.