The lingering effects of an extraordinary love
In a note to her stunning graphic biography of Marie and Pierre Curie, Lauren Redniss recalls how Helene Langevin-Joliot warned her not to make her grandparents’ story a fairy tale, nor to exclude Pierre from the more famous story of Marie. While Redniss does an outstanding job presenting both figures equally, she can be forgiven for giving Marie more attention as her longer career contributed to her achievements outshining her husband’s. But she admits to freely ignoring the first bit of advice, and it’s not difficult to see why— or to hold it against her. Radioactive: Marie and Pierre: A Tale of Love and Fallout is a beautiful book in both the visual and textual sense. But more importantly, Redniss exquisitely captures this powerful partnership as its effects ripple through time and place to individuals and eventually the entire world.
The basics of Marie and Pierre Curie’s partnership are generally well known: he was a scientist in Paris, known for his work on heat and magnetism; she was a newly arrived Polish student who started work in his lab. Together, they discovered radium and polonium, won a Nobel Prize and discovered the mysterious new phenomenon of radioactivity. After Pierre’s early death due to a freak accident, Marie continued work, earning her own Nobel Prize and, as Redniss details, garnering both acclaim and derision over her personal life.
But it is in the depiction of the Curies’ bittersweet story that Redniss’ work shines. In an intriguing move, Redniss uses cyanotype printing to create simple, eerie imagery, a style that perfectly suits the glow of radium. Creating simple images on paper, treating them with a special photosensitive chemical and then exposing them to the sun, the images are in effect, a creation of the very radioactivity that the Curies studied. In addition to the cyanotype prints, Redniss includes other imagery that further explores the impact of radioactivity: a mushroom cloud exploding over an atoll, the fallout map from Chernobyl, the FBI files of a concerned Los Alamos scientist, and the detailed depiction of the core of a nuclear power generator.
Unlike a number of other graphic novels, Redniss’ uses a lot of text to convey the story, but that does not mean that the images are superfluous to the text. Rather, it’s a perfect blend, adding just the right added poignancy to the Curie’s story, much of which comes from their diary and research entries. The past few years have seen some extraordinary memoirs and biographies published in graphic novel format, and Radioactive is worthy to be included among the best of them.