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by Patricia Grossman
Reviewed by Deborah Montuori

Elise Blazek is the core of Irena's life. Yes, Irena has a husband, Stepan, but when not at work, he's busy tinkering on a model of Karlstein Castle, a remnant of his memories of Plzen, Czechoslovakia, his childhood home. There is Miloslav, her husband's nephew, sent to live with them when his mother went mad, but he is just a boy who dreams of playing professional baseball, and he has always been closer to Stepan. Her job as a seamstress, her friendship with the Kriz sisters, her weekly card games, her dream of returning to Plzen—all these are secondary to the true love of her life: her daughter, Elise. The brilliant, promising, unpredictable, and intensely disturbed Elise.

Radiant Daughter begins in 1969, the summer before Elise is about to depart for Princeton. Late one evening, the telephone rings: the Chicago police have arrested Elise for vandalizing private property. Released to the custody of her parents, who ignore this first sign of the mental illness that will continue to plague her life and who prefer to view the incident as a symptom of unrequited love, Elise ships her belongings to Princeton several weeks ahead of schedule. It will be years before she returns.

At university, Elise excels academically but seems bent on erasing her family and her heritage, choosing a path of rebellion marked by inexplicable angry outbursts, the adoption of a garish secondhand wardrobe, spending sprees charged to Stepan's credit card, sexual promiscuity with a string of ill-chosen partners, and, worst of all to her parents' minds, her decision to major in Russian literature—the literature of their homeland's enemy. The only steadying force in her life is her roommate, Wiley, a pre-med student who is the first to realize that Elise suffers from bipolar disorder. Throughout the next twenty-seven years, Wiley will prove to be the best of friends, the pillar to which Elise can, when willing, tether her raging emotions. But Elise often refuses to take her medication or follow up with her doctors, choosing instead to live in a world of her own making that initially seems exuberantly independent but soon evolves into a lonely and terrifying hell. In her darkest days, when she has either rejected or been rejected by nearly everyone in her life, she turns once more to Irena for help.

Radiant Daughter follows Elise's journey through mental illness, but it is also the story of the frightening force of Irena's love for her daughter. Always willing to listen, to believe anything, and to offer support as Elise continues on a downward spiral, Irena finds herself so caught up in her daughter's get-rich-quick schemes and paranoid delusions that her own security and sanity are at risk.

In her carefully crafted prose, Grossman presents an accurate and compelling portrait of mental illness from the inside out. Here, for example, she draws us into Elise's thoughts and feelings as she comes down from an early manic spree, thanks to a Valium provided by Wiley:

Elise could not focus. Though feeling wobbly from the effects of the drug, she was nonetheless shot through with an aimless sense of dread, with a metallic taste at the back of her tongue, and with the sudden conviction that she could just as easily be any of the passersby on Bedford Street or one of the dogs or a trout laid out on ice. Her body was all but borderless. That weekend in Chicago, she had felt the same. She wanted to tell Wiley about that time, and she wanted to ask her if she knew the borders of her body, but it all became too intricate and too burdensome to phrase….

More than just another mental illness story, Radiant Daughter explores the depths of both madness and love, the divisions between cultures and generations, and the meaning of family and true friendship. It is an intense, beautifully written, and hauntingly sad novel that, in Grossman's more than capable hands, still celebrates the resilience of the human heart and the persistence of hope.