Elizabeth Stuckey-French Takes Readers on a 'Wild Ride' with Radioactive Lady
Elizabeth Stuckey-French is sitting in her Williams Building office, eating a cup of yogurt, and discussing the contentment she has now that her most recent book tour is winding down. With only a few events scheduled this summer, she can finally spend more time at home, where she most wants to be these days.
While Stuckey-French is looking forward to rest and relaxation, she has advice for those who pick up and dive into her latest novel: "Fasten your seatbelts, readers. It's going be a wild ride," she says about The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady (Doubleday, 2011).
In the same interview posted on her personal website, Stuckey-French elaborates, saying that Radioactive Lady is "a domestic thriller. It's about revenge and reconciliation. It's about injustice and forgiveness. It's about the way the past haunts the present. It's about changing your name and finding yourself. It's about the redemptive power of Elvis. It's about exploring what life is like on the autism spectrum… not just for the boys and girls who are affected, but their families as well."
The story is about seventy-seven year old Marylou Ahearn who wants to kill Dr. Wilson Spriggs because, as part of a secret government study in 1953, he gave her a radioactive cocktail without her consent.
As it is explained on the publisher's website, "Marylou has been plotting her revenge for fifty years. When she accidentally discovers his whereabouts in Florida, and her plans finally snap into action. She high-tails it to hot and humid Tallahassee, moves in down the block from where a now senile Spriggs lives with his daughter's family, and begins the tricky work of insinuating herself into their lives. But she has no idea what a nest of yellow jackets she is stumbling into."
Reviewers are praising Stuckey-French for her cleverness and skill, both necessary to bring clarity to the zany happenings.
"The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady is populated exclusively by what used to be called oddballs, and therein lies its strength… A lesser writer would have made Marylou Ahearn more spritely, more lovable, would have defanged her hatred of Wilson Spriggs. We don't expect, in comic little-old-lady novels, to encounter childhood cancer, randy preachers and a boy building a homemade breeder reactor in a tool shed. But Stuckey-French knows that if you dig deep enough, we're all oddballs, and that the world is a perilous and unpredictable place," writes Jincy Willett in The New York Times.
Eerily, one of the driving forces behind the book—Marylou's medical condition—was inspired by real-life experiments that government scientists carried out on women in Massachusetts and Tennessee during the 1950s. In Massachusetts, government officials fed orphans from a state asylum oatmeal treated with radioactive iodine; in Nashville, doctors gave low-income, pregnant women prenatal vitamin drinks that were radioactive mixtures. Many of the women and their children developed medical problems, including cancer.
Stuckey-French read Eileen Welsome's 1999 book The Plutonium Files: America's Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War, which uncovered the horrific history. But Welsome's work did not gain much public awareness, despite winning a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. "Neither I, nor most people I talked to, had heard the story," Stuckey-French says. "I wanted people to know about it."
Eileen Reynolds, writing for the "The Book Bench" on The New Yorker's website, commends Stuckey-French for being able to balance the macabre with a sharp wit.
"There's something wonderfully un-categorizable about The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady… It's very funny, but the humor comes from grim situations we know we shouldn't laugh at… [This] is the sort of book that one devours quickly and then thinks, 'I'll have another just like that, please.' The trouble, of course, is that it's difficult to find another book quite like this one."
While Stuckey-French plans to enjoy her down time after a hectic schedule of traveling for readings and book signings, she will also focus on her next serving of fiction. She is currently working on a young adult novel with Patricia Henley, and a collection of stories called Mudlavia.