The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady
By Elizabeth Stuckey-French
Reviewed by Donna Meredith
Marylou is such an innocuous name, surely not the name of someone plotting a murder, especially since the Marylou in question is gray-haired and nearly eighty, a woman who becomes winded walking her dog around the block. But Marylou is the wildly improbably old gal at the heart of Elizabeth Stuckey-French’s novel, The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady.
The underlying premise of the novel—a pregnant woman whose doctor gives her a radioactive cocktail as part of her prenatal care—should be completely ridiculous—except that researchers inflicted this criminal experiment on over 800 unsuspecting women at Vanderbilt University during the Cold War. The experiments, conducted in conjunction with the Tennessee State Department of Health, were partly funded by the Public Health Service. Poor women were treated like lab rats by unscrupulous researchers. When the experiments came to light, they resulted in a class action lawsuit that generated a $10.3 million judgment. Yet money would be small consolation to mothers who became seriously ill or those whose children died as a result of the radioactive iron delivered as “vitamins.”
Stuckey-French takes us inside the mind of one of these victims, Marylou Ahearn, who moves from Tennessee to Florida where the doctor she holds responsible for her daughter’s death now lives. Marylou is not her real name. She has changed it because she fears the doctor will recognize her. Instead she finds, Dr. Spriggs is lucky these days to remember his own name. Age-related dementia keeps him confused most of the time.
In her quest for revenge, Marylou befriends the doctor’s family. As she well knows after watching her daughter die of cancer, if you want to hurt people deeply, make their loved ones suffer. Yet as Marylou wriggles her way into the lives of Dr. Spriggs’s family, she finds the members face torments of their own.
The doctor’s daughter Caroline suffers from a debilitating midlife crisis, her husband Vic is behaving like a lustful teenager with one of his colleagues, and two of the children have Asperger’s Syndrome. Then there’s Suzi, who endures the fate of being normal in the eye of this hurricane. She can’t get a moment’s attention. Each time Marylou believes she has found the perfect revenge, something goes awry. As she starts to see the Spriggs’s family members as human beings, she feels empathy, and a satisfying revenge is no longer possible.
In true Southern fiction fashion, the author delivers a host of quirky characters: a handsome minister who is also a pedophile, a teenage boy constructing a nuclear reactor in the backyard, and a girl whose nude photos are plastered all over cyberspace.
The novel asks the question (with apologies to Langston Hughes), “What happens to [revenge] deferred?” For Marylou, it doesn’t dry up over time like a raisin in the sun. Instead, it festers and is in danger of exploding. Marylou’s schemes bring chaos and pain into the lives of the Spriggs family, but rather than satisfaction, Marylou feels only sorrow. She realizes her obsession has turned her into someone she doesn’t like anymore. With themes of love and forgiveness, the novel has plenty of serious threads woven throughout all the dark comedy. The story offers us hope that no matter how badly fractured a family becomes, healing is possible.
Mermaids on the Moon, Stuckey-French’s first novel, also plumbs the relationships of people across several generations. In addition, she is the author of a short story collection, The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa; and her short fiction has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Gettysburg Review, Southern Review, and Five Points. Stuckey-French teaches fiction writing at Florida State University.