When I heard the premise of The Fever, I knew I had to read it. Back in March, I listened to the podcast, The Mysterious Case of Convulsing Cheerleaders, which is fascinating. Human brains are so weird!
In The Fever, the affliction strikes a suburban town high school. On an ordinary morning, a girl has a seizure in the middle of class. No one knows why. Not long after, another girl, a friend of the first girl, passes out at an assembly. Soon several girls are exhibiting strange behaviours: ticks and twitches. What is the cause of these symptoms? Is it pollution of the nearby lake? Something in the school? Recent vaccinations?
The Fever by Megan Abbott is told through the point of views of three members of the Nash family: Deenie, her Dad Tom, and brother Eli. Deenie is best friends with the first afflicted girl, Tom is a teacher at the high school, and Eli a clueless hockey jock. Deenie and her friends are privileged, popular girls, headed by Gabby, a dark haired beauty other girls clamour to be around. As more girls in her group fall ill, Deenie wonders if she’s next. The school tries to conduct business as usual, but when officials arrive with questions and parents come up with wild conspiracy theories for why their kids are sick, hysteria sets in.
Abbott sends readers chasing theories and wondering what is going on in this town. Some parents blame the HPV vaccination, but why is this town the only one afflicted? There’s the lake that sounds like something out of a horror movie. Then there’s the girls themselves, with their secrets and petty jealousies. It was interesting to see how other people saw the girls. The parents believed they were just trying to protect their precious baby girls. Others, men and boys in particular, almost fetishized their adolescent femininity, pondering their long hair, and giggly secrets. I found it disturbing. Sex, particularly loss of virginity, is treated like a transcendental experience. The girls are both afraid and anxious to lose it. The adults in a hurry to vaccinate them, before the boys get to them: “They never get sick. They just make everyone else sick.”
The Fever in many ways reminded me of all the reasons why I hated high school. The cliques, the constantly questioning where you stood in your own group, the jealousies, and whispering. I’d never want to do it again.
Abbott drops red herrings, some almost supernatural; I was frustrated by this, especially since by the end they drift off into the ether... like they never existed. Other little hints are dropped here and there until the end they all come together and seem to make sense. At the time though, it just created confusion. I thought the reasons for the illness were going to be a lot different because of the tone of the writing. So, I’m not sure how I feel about the ending. Just not sure. I’ve discussed some of this with other readers who weren’t sure about the end either, though they seemed to have different reasons than I did for feeling that way. I think The Fever is going to be one of those books that people are going to have strong feelings about.
I recommend The Fever because I think it’s a book that will get people talking if nothing else.
Thanks to Little, Brown and Company for the review copy via Netgalley.