Around the World in Books / Poland

Sexualizing Marie Curie

The Polish scientist gets naked in a National Book Award finalist. But do you gain anything from it?

Janice Harayda
4 min readMar 20, 2022


Rosamund Pike in the 2019 Amazon Original film of “Radioactive” / Credit: Amazon Prime Video

This is the 20th post in the “Around the World in Books” series that is reviewing 30 books from 30 countries during the first 30 days of March. Tomorrow: Qatar

This book shows you Marie Curie as you’ve never seen her: naked.

In Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love & Fallout (HarperCollins, 2010), Lauren Redniss modifies the format of graphic novels as she focuses on the couple’s love affair with physics and with each other. She omits the usual strips or panels and encloses her text in haunting black-and-white, two-toned, or multicolored spreads.

Redniss works hard to show the importance of the Curies’ scientific achievements. She makes clear that radioactivity helped lead to modern events that range from the partial meltdown of two nuclear reactors at Three Mile Island to the cranial radiation treatments that enabled a 14-year-old Rhode Island boy to survive his non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

But a half dozen of the images unabashedly sexualize Marie: They show the two-time Nobel laureate as fully or partly nude. On one dramatic spread she frolics as naked as a wood nymph with Paul Langevin, the married man who became her lover after her husband’s death. The left-hand page shows Langevin’s head, and the right-hand one describes his life in words arranged in the shape of his head, the equivalent of a pattern poem in prose.

An image of Marie Curie, right, from “Radioactive” / Credit: HarperCollins

Redniss created her images through superb drawing and cyanotype printing, a form of cameraless photography that gives many of her pictures a bluish cast and something of the ethereal quality of radium. Her subjects have Modigliani-esque almond eyes and elongated features. Redness grounds such portraits in pages of archival materials such as maps, photos, X-rays and a North Korean stamp marking the 50th anniversary of Marie’s death.

Curie’s notebooks were still radioactive 100…



Janice Harayda

Critic, novelist, award-winning journalist. Former book editor of the Plain Dealer and book columnist for Glamour. Words in NYT, WSJ, and other major media.