‘Radioactive Lady’ aglow with dark humor

By Erin Almond
February 15, 2011

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Elizabeth Stuckey-French’s darkly comic new novel, “The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady,’’ begins with a bang: “By the time Marylou Ahearn finally moved into the little ranch house in Tallahassee, she’d spent countless hours trying to come up with the best way to kill Wilson Spriggs.’’

And we’re off!

Marylou is seeking revenge for good reason: Spriggs was the scientist who, in the 1950s, conducted a secret experiment that fed her (and other pregnant women) a radioactive cocktail, which may have caused her daughter to die at 8 of cancer. Now it is 2006, Marylou is in her late 70s, and, thanks to the Internet, she has tracked her man down.

The catch is that Wilson has early-stage Alzheimer’s, and it is unclear whether he remembers his ghoulish Cold War work. Marylou cannot quite bring herself to kill him, so she decides to infiltrate his family instead.

Wilson lives with his daughter, Caroline, her husband, Vic, and their three teenage children, two of whom have Asperger’s. It is the “normal’’ child, Suzi, whom Marylou befriends first. She aims to turn Suzi into “the kind of Christian who quoted Bible verses irresponsibly and judged other people and scared them away’’ by inviting her to attend services at the local megachurch. It is only a matter of time before Marylou is “accidentally’’ locking Wilson in the backyard shed with radioactive materials, encouraging his other granddaughter to ditch her studies to try out for “America’s Next Top Model,’’ and spying on Vic at work.

Stuckey-French shifts points of view from chapter to chapter, a potentially gimmicky strategy that works well in this case as it serves to deepen our attachment to her characters. The prose employs the same mordant whimsy she used in her previous novel, “Mermaids on the Moon,’’ and her debut collection of short stories, “The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa.’’ Here, Stuckey-French uses it to capture the particulars of domestic dysfunction, the difficulties family members have communicating with each other, and how their daily resentments and disappointments lead them to retreat from one another.

Caroline is the quintessential modern mom, sick of “[f]ixing the same unappreciated lunches; sorting the same mounds of vile sour clothes; nagging people to do their chores.’’ Vic struggles with whether or not to follow through on a workplace affair: “He was committing petty crimes, getting used to the idea of himself as a criminal, working up to the felony.’’

Ava and Otis, the two teens with Asperger’s, are sensitively drawn. Stuckey-French, herself a mom to a daughter with Asperger’s, spares her readers none of the syndrome’s frustrations. At one point, Caroline “wonder[s] if the reason she spent so much time trying to fix Ava was because she couldn’t fully love Ava the way she was.’’ In both cases, their obsessions — Ava with Elvis, Otis with building his own model nuclear reactor — do not seem any more out-of-the-ordinary than, for instance, their father’s addiction to tracking hurricanes on the computer in his basement “hidey-hole.’’

Stuckey-French’s desire to keep the action moving makes some connections feel hastily drawn. Characters occasionally come to realizations that seem delivered by the author rather than organic to who they are.

But the author’s insistence on rendering her characters as complex human beings with conflicting desires keeps the novel from reading like mere farce. While the plot may hinge on revenge, the unpredictability of love is the true subject. It turns out to be the best kind of page-turner — one with heart.

Erin Almond, a freelance writer in the Boston area, can be reached at erinalmond@gmail .com.


By Elizabeth Stuckey-French

Doubleday, 334 pp., $25.95