Megan Bryant seems to be something of a polymath in the novel world, not stuck-in-a-rut with any one audience or genre, but covering a variety of topics and age ranges, so I could identify with her somewhat on that score! I haven't read anything of hers before, but this young adult outing interested me, and I thank the publisher for a chance to read an advance review copy.
Glow is about this college student named - embarrassingly, she thinks - Jubilee, but who goes by Julie. Julie is a wannabe student, but she was forced to forgo her planned freshman year because her mother ran into some serious debts and Julie's college fund was sucked dry when she paid them off. On a scavenger shopping trip with her well-off friend, who seems to have more money than sense, Julie accidentally happens upon this cheap, but original painting at a second-hand store. The art speaks to her and it's cheap(!), so she buys it at the knock-down price.
At home that night, the painting almost knocks her down when she discovers that there's a second painting hidden beneath the first, and it's one which can only be seen when the lights are off, because it glows in the dark. She finds a second painting by the same artist, and that too, has the same feature. The image it shows though, is grotesque and disturbing, so she becomes obsessed with finding out who the artist is and what the hidden pictures mean.
Just as there are two paintings incorporated in each canvas, there are two stories in this novel. I liked the symmetry of that. The second story alternates with the first, and provides answers to questions asked in it. It takes place via letters written by a young woman in 1917 to her boyfriend who was in Europe fighting World War One.
It becomes obvious to the reader long before it does to Julie, just what has happened here, since it's pretty clear from these letters. The girl who painted the pictures was showing the world what the painting watch faces using radioactive materials would do to people. I actually figure out exactly who it was too, something I'm not normally able to do!
The people depicted in the paintings were those who became known as the 'radium girls' - people who became sick from exposure to radioactive materials long before anyone really knew, or cared, how dangerous these horrors we have exposed in our world truly are. Wikipedia contains the very photograph of the factory which gets a visit in the novel (a visit which technically could not have occurred, but I let that slide, too!).
The fact is that no story is perfect (not even mine, LOL!), and while this one had one or two issues, none of them was sufficient to make me dislike the story which I consider to be important. The first problem or me in a novel like this is first person voice. I have no idea why so many authors, particularly in the young-adult world, are so addicted to it, but it is a weak and problematic voice and in my opinion should be used only in extremis! Some authors can carry it though, and this author is evidently one of them, I'm happy to report, because it wasn't at all obnoxious, so that objection was assuaged here.
Another format I'm not enamored of is the epistolary one, and that's also employed here, but again this author brought it in as a way to introduce a second first person voice. While for me, two first person voices are usually two too many, I did appreciate the way she snuck this in under the radar (under most people's radars!) by having the letters be the medium by which the second voice was delivered. Superficially it worked, and again it was not nauseating for me to read. I was also glad it wasn't done with flashbacks which I also detest, but to me all of these methods are potential liabilities for a writer because they do serious harm to the realism and credibility of the story.
No one who is telling you a story of their personal adventure can recall every detail and relate it, including verbatim conversations, and this is one reason I dislike this particular voice so much: it's far too inauthentic for my taste. This was a problem in the epistolary portions because the writer didn't sound at all like someone who was writing in 1917! The language and tone were all wrong and the detailed conversations were too much, but as I said, it wasn't obnoxious, and fortunately, I enjoyed the story enough that I was willing to let this slide. You see? I told you you can get away with a lot of sins in a novel if you tell me a good story, and this author did.
There was romance, but again this author managed it well, and so she did not piss me off there, either! It's like she knew just how far to push things with me without tripping any triggers! I was tempted to think she reads my blog, but that's really too much of a stretch!
I have to say that the texting didn't work though. To be honest, I think this was more a result of Amazon's truly crappy Kindle app failing to reproduce the author's original layout, that ever it was the author's fault. We should, as a writing and publishing community, flatly refuse to publish any books in Kindle format until Amazon makes it as good as the Nook or PDF format, but that's just me.
The problem with the crappy Kindle migration is that the texts were not spaced properly, and so it was hard to tell who was saying what! I am, probably needless to say, not a fan of writers reproducing phone texts in novels. It inevitably sounds fake.
I think that too many writers think it's 'edgy' or 'now' or something, to reproduce texts, but I'd much rather they simply delivered the gist of the conversation than tried to recreate an actual detailed text exchange, because it rarely works. I can see where there might be reasons for doing that, but as a general rule, reading other people's texts, even fictional ones, is seriously boring and I think it's lazy on the part of a writer to write like that.
Rather than read:
- You up for breakfast?
- where shall we meet?
- Breakfast Nook?
- Sounds good 2 me
I have to say that Julie came across as a bit slow in solving this problem given her academic background (as indeed was her friend Lauren), but sometimes people are simply slow, and they don't always arrive as quickly at what might seem to others to be an obvious conclusion as we might think they ought. Julie isn't a science whizz after all, otherwise she would never have said, "I know time didn’t stop - I know that’s not possible; the laws of physics forbid it." Actually it is possible: that's exactly what an event horizon is, around a black hole! But yeah, ok, for most ordinary purposes, it's true that time doesn't stop.
Julie's quite literal, and highly ill-advised toxic encounter with Luke, given what she'd just learned, was a bit odd to me, too. I expected better of her than that, and she seemed to be thinking only of herself, but I forgave that as a moment of madness, given the shock she'd just had. Even though the ending of the story seemed to leave some of the friction between Julie and her mom unresolved - or at least un-discussed (erm, kitchen appliances, anyone?), overall I liked the way the book ended, too. It was nicely wrapped up, overall.
The story of the radium girls has been told before in different ways, and more than once. In one instance it was told as an animated short released in 2007 by Jo Lawrence, and also titled Glow, but that one has no relation to this story as far as I know.
The thing is though, that I don't think you can over-tell a story like this because it's one more example of appalling corporate greed overriding the safety and welfare of employees, and this kind of crap is still going on today - although hopefully not with radioactive materials! it sure as hell is going on with noxious chemicals in China, particularly with people who are building the very electronic devices we in the west worship so devotedly and demand so cheaply.
Until we as a society learn and thoroughly internalize the tragic historical lessons of capitalistic avarice and callousness, we thoroughly deserve to keep being hit hard over the head for our stupidity and ignorance, and this book does that well. That and the fact that this a pretty decent story is why I consider it a worthy read and recommend it.