The Fever by Megan Abbott

Recently I’ve been listening to a podcast called Books on the Nightstand, a weekly half hour of reviews and general book-related discussion. It was here that I heard about Megan Abbott’s novel The Fever, and downloaded it to my tablet. Living in Cambodia it’s difficult (and expensive) to buy new-release books like this ‘in the flesh’; with a tablet, however, it’s almost too easy. I’m always just one click away from the next book – great for my reading selection, not so great for my bank account. The Fever is the first work of fiction I’ve read in digital-mode, and to be honest at no point did I wish I was holding pages instead of a screen. It did take me a little while to get into this novel (I’m blaming the choppy, dreamy reading experience that comes with airline travel), but once I reached the half-way point I was mystified and engrossed – I had to know what would happen next. While the end felt a little lacking, overall The Fever is well written and suspenseful.

Abbott’s novel was inspired by a recent outbreak of strange symptoms among high-school girls in the town of Le Roy in upstate New York. Around eighteen girls experienced muscle spasms, involuntary movements, and other symptoms similar to Tourette syndrome (see two of the girls interviewed on Today here). Doctors concluded that the teens were suffering from a combination of psychological conditions, the first being conversion disorder, which occurs when emotional trauma or anxiety manifests as physical symptoms. The second condition doctors identified was mass psychological illness (MPI), otherwise known as mass hysteria (read more about the Le Roy case here). Some parents (and their daughters) were unhappy with this diagnosis, stating that the girls weren’t under any stress when their illnesses arose. However, many of them had been through traumatic experiences in the recent past. Even if the mind is not conscious of stress, according to psychologists, it can still produce bodily symptoms of anxiety.

The Fever shares a lot of similarities with the Le Roy case. In Abbott’s novel about eighteen girls are affected by mysterious seizures and tics, and many of them have suffered family trauma. As with Le Roy, water pollution is a suspected cause of the symptoms, and both social media and news coverage of the outbreak seem to result in more girls getting sick. The Fever focuses mainly on the Nash family – Tom, a chemistry teacher, and his two high school age children: his son Eli, a handsome hockey player, and his daughter Deenie, whose best friend Lise is the first to be afflicted by ‘the fever’ in a very public and violent manner. While the ending of the novel partly reflects the Le Roy outcome, it also presents an interesting and unexpected twist.

I enjoyed reading this book partly for the writing itself at a sentence level. The language Abbott uses is clear and simple, but effective. She also creates a wonderfully eerie atmosphere through her use of description and metaphor; in this novel, tone is everything (I still can’t get the image of a teenage girl with white hair bent over a rabbit cage out of my mind). What I really loved about The Fever, however, was the mystery at the heart of it. The deeper into this novel I got the more baffled I was, and the more intrigued. I had no idea how Abbott was going to pull all the threads of the story together, and I had to find out.

My biggest criticism of this novel is its ending. The twist was surprising, and felt right, but after the climax things went a little flat for a chapter or so. I wanted a bit more of an explanation; or I wanted that spooky feeling to continue so that I would be left wondering, covered in goose bumps (and possibly experiencing tics), my imagination creating its own explanations.

Overall, while this novel could have explored its issues a little more deeply (especially in terms of MPI and the effect of social media), I found it a very enjoyable read.

Megan Abbott is the author of seven novels, including The Fever and Dare Me. The Fever was published in 2014.

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