Sometimes when I read I want a book full of quiet, meaningful elegance that steps very carefully into every word. Sometimes, though, my life gets a little too quiet and I want something different, a storm of a book that blows out windows and leaves ruin in its wake. InThe Revenge of the Radioactive Lady, there’s a hurricane that makes landfall four times, coming back for more destruction every time folks think the coast is clear. The rest of the book is the same way.
Marylou Ahearn is 77 years old and she has murder on the brain. Back in 1953, she was given a “vitamin” drink at an OB visit when she was pregnant with her daughter Helen. Ten years later, Helen died of a terrible cancer. The vitamin drink was actually radioactive, a substance administered to hundreds of low-income women who visited that clinic for pregnancy care. After fifty-three years, she’s tracked down the man responsible for Helen’s death: Dr. Wilson Spriggs, who conducted the experiment at the behest of the US government during the Cold War paranoia. She leaves her home in Memphis and travels to Tallahassee, where Wilson lives with his daughter and her family. When she gets there, her plans for revenge take a turn she didn’t expect—Wilson is afflicted with Alzheimer’s, and Marylou’s retaliation doesn’t pack quite the same punch when the victim can’t quite remember the crime he committed.
Time for Plan B: Marylou will just have to destroy his family, instead. Wilson’s daughter Caroline Witherspoon is struggling with hot flashes and fading youth; her husband Vic is a hapless sort who seems out of his element both at home and at work, especially when it comes to a sexually aggressive colleague. Their oldest daughter, Ava, wants simultaneously to fit in and to immerse herself in books about Elvis Presley. Their son Otis is obsessed with creating a nuclear device in their backyard shed. Both Otis and Ava have Asperger’s. And their youngest daughter, thirteen-year-old Suzi, is a social success and soccer star, but can’t seem to get her mother’s attention. This disconnected family is ripe for Marylou’s infiltration and assault.
The book is titled
The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady
—emphasis on the Revenge. This is Marylou’s story in that she is the one who starts many of the events in motion (although she’d say that Wilson started it, really, what with his toxic Kool-Aid and all). But the book is about an already unknit family falling further and further apart, with Marylou picking not-so-idly at each loose thread. Even once Marylou begins to know the Witherspoons, and to like them more than a bit, her plan to ruin them is always at the heart of her every action. It would have been easy (and predictable) for Stuckey-French to have Suzi’s charm and affection melt Marylou’s murderous heart, but instead the old woman’s actions become even more aggressive. As a tropical storm builds into a hurricane, the Witherspoon family will have to come together to save Wilson’s life, but the radioactive lady has one more trick up her sleeve.
The most fully-fleshed characters are the children, all of whom struggle with adolescence in realistic, moving ways. Ava senses the limits that Asperger’s has forced upon her but doesn’t quite know how to struggle against them. She’s impulsive, given to angry fits and childish behaviors that hold her back from making a connection with others. Otis delves so deeply into his radioactive pastime that he cannot truly see how dangerous it is, but this single-minded dark pursuit attracts the interest of a goth girl whose family is bad news. Suzi’s athletic skill may keep her approval rating high in her dad’s eyes, but she really wants a woman’s care. Since her mother is immersed in Ava’s treatment, Suzi is ripe for Marylou’s affectionate attention—attending Marylou’s creepy strip-mall church and starting down a path that might destroy her.
The cover makes it look like a much lighter, more madcap book than it is. Blurbs from other authors compare it to the work of Carl Hiaasen and to
Little Miss Sunshine
, and I can see why those comparisons work; all of these are about a collection of wildly disparate weird people who risk losing everything that matters to them. There’s something endearing and funny about watching weird people try to keep a yoke on their weirdness, although
is by no means broad. I loved the experience of identifying with Marylou, who does absolutely reprehensible things to people she quite likes because she’s spent fifty years plotting a murder she’s as incapable of committing as Hamlet was incapable of killing Claudius. She cannot just let go of the plan to do violence to either Wilson or his own, because in her head she’s conflated that vengeance with her memory of her child.
I enjoyed reading
The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady
so much. It’s stylish and thought-provoking, and the Witherspoons are a kind of dysfunctional family I love to read about. They aren’t wasting all their energy putting on a veneer of competence. And it broke through a long winter of complacent reading and gave me a good old-fashioned southern storm.