I love Elizabeth Stuckey-French’s new novel, The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady, and it’s been a kick to watch it take off these past weeks, with great reviews from the very literary New York Times Book Review (every serious writer’s dream) to People Magazine (every serious writer’s secret dream.)
This starred review from Publishers Weekly sums up the book nicely:
“Glowing with dark humor, Stuckey-French's fabulously quirky second novel (after Mermaids on the Moon) spotlights a wild would-be killer: Marylou Ahearn, a 77-year-old retired teacher in Memphis, Tenn. She's obsessed with killing Dr. Wilson Spriggs, who gave pregnant Marylou a radioactive cocktail in 1953 during a secret government study. Helen, the daughter Marylou gave birth to, died in 1963 from cancer. Accompanied by her Welsh corgi, Buster, and as "Nancy Archer" (the heroine of the 1958 movie Attack of the 50 Foot Woman), Marylou moves in 2006 to Tallahassee, Fla., where Wilson lives with his daughter, menopausal Caroline; her husband, Vic Witherspoon, who's contemplating an affair, and their children: 18-year-old Elvis-obsessed beauty Ava; 16-year-old science geek Otis, who's secretly building a nuclear breeder reactor; and overachieving, attention-deprived 13-year-old Suzi. As "Radioactive Lady," Nance creates mucho mischief for Wilson, but her revenge plans mutate after discovering the old doc has Alzheimer's, and dang it, she really likes his kinfolk.”
The book is, indeed, “glowing with dark humor.” Also, in the words of other reviews…
I am in total agreement with them all.
But what I love most about the novel is that it is utterly original, by which I mean nobody who’s living on the planet, ever lived on the planet, or ever will live on the planet could have written this book except Elizabeth Stuckey-French.
Which got me wondering, “What is originality, anyway?”
Everyone who’s ever studied literature knows about Hemingway’s iceberg: "If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water."
They are also probably familiar with Grace Paley’s advice to fiction writers: “Write what you don’t know about what you know.”
Apply Grace Paley’s advice to Hemingway’s iceberg theory and you get something like:
“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.” But it’s the process of writing the story, wrestling with what he doesn’t know about what he knows, that provides the opportunity for the writer to earn the knowledge needed to write the story. And what the writer doesn’t know, starting out, needs to matter to him—desperately, and in the most personal way. Which means that the part of Hemingway’s iceberg beneath the surface is also made of bits and pieces of the writer himself.
So, yeah, idea behind The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady is delightfully original. But its true originality lies in the honesty and courage with which Stuckey-French wrestled down the big, unanswerable questions beneath the surface of this deceptively goofy story.
What is a happy family?
Can we ever really know…anyone?
What can and cannot be forgiven?
And speaking about what people don’t know about what they know, it would be nice to think that The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady might make publishers consider what they don’t know about what they (think they) know about what the market wants.
All too often, they’re are scared to death of original work. It doesn’t fit anywhere. It can’t be hailed as the next Twilight or Harry Potter. They have no idea what to do with it.
So, bravo to Doubleday for believing in this wonderful, original novel.
And, of course, to Elizabeth Stuckey-French for writing it.