Book Review - The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds


This book had been on my bookshelves for several years prior to my picking it up a few days ago. I'm not quite sure how it arrived there, although I think I may have acquired it for free at a book giveaway at my alma mater's library. To be completely transparent, I was simply looking for a quick book to read and noticed that this one was short and appeared relatively interesting, so I grabbed it and flipped through it to find out it was actually a short play, and also found the text to be quite spaced out on the page—two things that encouraged my reading of it.

A bit of brief history: The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds had its world premier in the theatre in 1964 and was published in book form in 1970. It was later adapted for the screen in 1972. Its author is Paul Zindel, a playwright and science teacher from Staten Island, New York.

The plot centers around a dysfunctional family: a widow named Beatrice Hunsdorfer and her two daughters, Matilda ("Tillie") and Ruth. Throughout the play, the introverted-yet-highly-intelligent child Tillie prepares an experiment for her school's science fair involving marigolds raised from seeds exposed to varying degrees of radioactivity. However, her self-centered and abusive mother, Beatrice, continuously attempts to halt Tillie's progress due to her own self-loathing and overall abusive nature toward her children. The other daughter, Ruth, is more extroverted than Tillie but considerably mentally unstable. As the play develops, Tillie wins the science fair through perseverance, Ruth repeatedly attempts to stand up to her mother but experiences several nervous breakdowns, and Beatrice is eventually driven insane and commits several violent acts toward her family and local community. However, despite it all, Tillie continues to believe that everyone is truly valuable.

I greatly enjoyed this play—even though I don't have much experience reading plays. The story is much more character-driven than plot driven, as there isn't a whole lot going on plot-wise, but the characters are fascinating to observe. Watching Beatrice treat her daughters with such vitriol and warden-like control is difficult but it makes for an intriguing book that is difficult to put down. Zindel does an excellent job of keeping the reader in the dark about many of the plot points and character reveals, waiting until the right moment to present new information that will help to understand what is going on in the family's overall dynamic. Even though I don't typically go to the theatre, I would certainly consider seeing this play performed live, and I highly recommend giving it a read if you get a chance, as I was pleasantly surprised.

4/5 stars. 109 pages.