By Chloe Gilke, Daily Arts Writer
Published July 9, 2014
Mystery and noir can have a rather unfair reputations. They’re novels practically built for bent spines and yellowing pages — reading for the throwaway thrill of solving the crime. The best mysteries, though, aren’t just devoured. The literature devours you, and the power of the words stays long past the turning of the final page. Megan Abbott’s “The Fever” is one of these uniquely poignant novels. Loosely based off the 2012 Le Roy teen illness scandal, “The Fever” is a harrowing portrayal of a community devastated by mass hysteria and the mystery of young femininity.
At the heart of the narrative is the Nash family. Everyteen Deenie navigates the rivalries in her friend group, Eli is a sensitive soul with a weakness for pretty girls, and single dad Tom is a dedicated father and high school teacher. Their small town is relatively quiet, but a certain darkness haunts Dryden. There’s the chemically technicolor lake, roped off after a child’s death in the water. A woman still bears the scars of being bashed in the head by a hammer, though her husband’s long gone. Maybe Tom’s wife had the right idea leaving the family and starting a new life away from the toxicity of the town.
When girl after girl collapses in sudden and inexplicable illness, the townspeople come up with increasingly panicked answers. Could it be exposure to that murky lake? A bad batch of the HPV vaccine, so foolishly recommended by school administration? A strange new strain of STD? One girl even points toward Deenie as being the cause of the illness, which may not be so far off, considering that Deenie’s friends are dropping like flies while she remains unafflicted.
Abbott wonderfully illustrates the risk of being a teenage girl. No matter how good parents might try and protect their daughters, youth brings an inevitable pliability. The affected girls are diverse, but have one characteristic in common — visible scars from a dark past. Between Lise’s weight struggles, Jaymie’s mommy issues and Gabby’s felon father, these girls are even more vulnerable than most. Tom says something along the lines of “it could be anything” harming the girls. It doesn’t matter if it’s a freak disease or the too-relatable risk of abuse and assault. Being a young girl is scary as hell.
Another affecting part of “The Fever” is the terrifyingly warped stream of gossip that pervades the halls of Dryden High. Photos and videos of the afflicted girls are shared through YouTube and social media, and even the teachers sit in the lounge, rewatching and perusing for clues. While Deenie is reeling over her friends’ illness, she can’t escape the constant buzzing of her phone, often receiving mysterious threatening comments from unfamiliar numbers. When Eli loses his cell, he’s at first excited for the freedom, but then afraid of what sinister meaning its absence might entail. Even the way Abbott chooses to tell this story enhances the frantic flow of information — each of the Nash family takes turns narrating, but just when one story seems on the edge of breakthrough, we’re thrust into another.
As gripping as the plot and underlying themes are, parts of “The Fever” don’t function quite so well. Eli Nash is thinly drawn compared to his more interesting sister, and he verges on being a collection of conflicting traits rather than a real character. (His passionate need to protect his sister is a little ridiculous.) Tom Nash is likable enough, but I’m not convinced his point of view adds anything to the story. In a story about mass hysteria and the danger of femininity, a subplot about a middle aged man’s love life doesn’t really resonate. The twist at at the end is thrilling and smart, but the ending feels rather rushed. Many interesting characters and individual cases don’t get the closure they deserve.
Still, “The Fever” is a wonderful dichotomy. It manages to be both a fun mystery and an interesting dissection of the dangers of femininity. There’s enough teen drama to make a Pretty Little Liar roll her eyes, but the surreal small-town horror reads like David Lynch pressed to the page. Its 300 pages are the very definition of a “fast read,” but it’s the sort of book that leaves you with breathless nightmares for days. “The Fever” is dark and twisty fun, worthy of being devoured and capable of devouring.