Saturday, May 6, 2017

Glow by Megan E. Bryant

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: May 5, 2017

When thrift-store aficionado Julie discovers a series of antique paintings with hidden glowing images that are only visible in the dark, she wants to learn more about the artist. In her search, she uncovers a century-old romance and the haunting true story of the Radium Girls, young women who used radioactive paint to make the world's first glow-in-the-dark products—and ultimately became radioactive themselves. As Julie’s obsession with the paintings mounts, truths about the Radium Girls—and her own complicated relationships—are revealed. But will she uncover the truth about the luminous paintings before putting herself and everyone she loves at risk?

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*** NOTE: This review contains spoilers. Please take heed and proceed at your own risk. 

For those who are slightly confused by or don’t understand the references in the jacket design, Megan E. Bryant’s Glow is a young adult fiction that blends a modern storyline with the tragic history of the radium dial painters employed at the United States Radium factory in Orange, New Jersey.

Three of Bryant’s fictional characters – Liza, Lydia, and Charlotte Grayson – work at the factory and while I absolutely loved the level of detail worked into their experiences, I couldn’t help feeling the historic elements of Bryant’s book played second fiddle to the modern mystery. The author obviously did her homework with regard to working conditions and the effects of radiation sickness, but I found the novel as a whole poorly balanced and wished Bryant had spent more time with the Grayson sisters and less on Julie’s needlessly dramatic personal life.

Don’t get me wrong. I felt the link Bryant created between Julie and Grayson girls grotesquely imaginative, but the supplemental details of Julie’s life felt unnecessary. Luke, for example is a conveniently single chemistry student who falls for Julie the moment they meet. The romance is clichéd at best, but his role in the mystery at the heart of the book is blatantly obvious from the moment he’s introduced. Rounding out the trio is Lauren, Julie’s best friend and poorly contrived foil. Bryant seems to have created the character to emphasize Julie’s misfortune, but I personally felt the effort banal and trite. The only character that annoyed me more was Julie’s mother, but even I admit my frustration on that point relates to the open-ended and ambiguous nature of her role in the story. I can’t speak for everyone, but it is my opinion that her subplot could have been omitted entirely without detriment to the narrative.

Lingering questions regarding the plausibility of an art enthusiast’s ignorance of the history of glow-in-the-dark paint also bother me, especially when the character in question harbors a distinctly defined penchant for chemistry. Pardon the observation, but I couldn’t put stock in the premise Bryant presented and found myself increasingly irritated with Julie as the story progressed. I suppose it is possible that she’d lack a base knowledge when the story opened, but the fact that she conducts enough research to create her own formula from strontium nitrate and europium undermines her integrity as a basic internet search for luminescent paint reveals the effect itself is created through fluorescence, phosphorescence, or radioluminescence. Call me crazy, but that last point should have piqued some interest.

I’m an unapologetically picky reader, but let’s consider this reality against the context of the story. At this point, Julie has already broken into the factory in Orange, perused what remains of the work stations, and been unnerved by a sign proclaiming the site is contaminated by hazardous materials. I might be going out on a limb here, but shouldn’t someone smart enough to dissect the chemical compounds of luminescent paint recognize the obvious link? Not in Bryant’s universe, but let’s be real. The factory itself was torn down by the EPA in 1998, long before the development of the GPS system that led Julie to 482 Dover Street in the first place, which makes it impossible for Chapter 11 and the discovery of key character Charles Graham to have unfolded as depicted.

Long story short, I’d recommend Glow for its representation of the historic material, but I’d caution those who don’t appreciate young adult themes to proceed with caution. As for me, I can only hope that I fare better with Stout’s Radium Halos or Mullner’s Deadly Glow.

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I got out of bed and crept closer to the painting, which glowed with ghostly luminescence. Like a moth to the flame, I approached it without hesitation, my hand reached to touch, violating ever art museum's cardinal rule. 
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