I was kindly sent a review copy of Megan Abbott’s The Fever by Emma Bravo from PanMacMillan along with another book I requested. They say never judge a book by its cover, but the hardback edition of The Fever I was sent was high quality and I rushed to read the description on the back. Here is what I found:
The panic unleashed by a mysterious contagion threatens the bonds of family and community in a seemingly idyllic suburban community.
The Nash family is close-knit. Tom is a popular teacher, father of two teens: Eli, a hockey star and girl magnet, and his sister Deenie, a diligent student. Their seeming stability, however, is thrown into chaos when Deenie’s best friend is struck by a terrifying, unexplained seizure in class. Rumors of a hazardous outbreak spread through the family, school and community.
As hysteria and contagion swell, a series of tightly held secrets emerges, threatening to unravel friendships, families and the town’s fragile idea of security.
A chilling story about guilt, family secrets and the lethal power of desire, The Fever affirms Megan Abbot’s reputation as “one of the most exciting and original voices of her generation”
First of all, I have to admit that even though the name “Megan Abbot” rang a bell, I had no idea what kind of books she wrote, or even if she was British or American. I found her on Twitter, where she has a verified account, and did some research on the Wikipedia. So, she is an American best-selling writer of crime fiction praised by the very Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl. I knew, then, that I had to read The Fever.
While I was thinking about this book, which I finished some weeks ago, two voices inside me battled for what to say. On the one hand, I read the book in three sittings because I couldn’t put it down. It really felt like a fever you cannot get rid of, something you need to go through. On the other hand, the high school setting and the characters made the read feel very much like YA. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against YA, it is only that it’s not the kind of genre that I enjoy or that I am used to reading. So, I thought that putting that battle into words would help potential readers: The Fever is an addictive book, one you will want to spend more time with, but it is also a quick and easy read.
Another feature that really caught my attention was the style. I am pretty much used to reading contemporary British crime fiction and I noticed the change from British English to American English. This is not meant as a criticism, but I thought it was worth mentioning. I love American TV shows and I am used to the accent – one many are surprised to find in a non-native speaker like me – but in writing, it felt very different. I had read other American novels like Gone Girl and did not feel the need to highlight the differences, but with Abbott’s The Fever, I had to.
The Fever, because it takes place in a high school, posts some very interesting questions about gender identities and gendered sexualities. Most of the characters are aged 16 or 17 and they are battling against their hormones, exams and their parents. Somehow, I found myself feeling nostalgic for my high school years, even though this had barely happened since I started college. The very scheduled lives, the way you have a weekly pattern, everyone has time to eat and you get home every day at the very same time. It felt like bliss. But, all the other things reminded me the awkward experiences your teenager years are.
Abbott also explores the panic surrounding the HPV vaccines. In Europe, the vaccines were obligatory and paid for by the national health care as long as the girls were under 14. Some months into the vaccination campaign, some girls started to have seizures and, if I don’t remember wrong, a few died. Panic, fear and worry began to plague European parents who had consented to their daughters getting the shots before doing research. A research that would have shown them that the vaccines were not as safe as everyone wanted the population to believe. Also, the fact that boys did not get the vaccine when they are most likely to spread the virus called for some revision of gendered sexualities and gendered medicine. Of course, it is the girls who would suffer from cervix cancer if they got a given type of the virus, but still, what about the boys who could carry and spread the virus? I thought it was very clever of Abbott to explore this issue and show that girls were treated like numbers and most parents blindly trusted the national health care.
Sexuality and teenagers’ bodies were also key issues, and Abbott even explores how certain sexual practices are considered desirable for young boys, but not for your girls. It shows that sexual behavior and patterns are constructed while our sexuality is still being constructed itself where there is a double standard and women’s bodies are overlooked. At one point, a girl who had a successful and totally healthy sexual relation with a boy thinks she did something wrong because it was he who performed oral sex on her, and not the way round. She even feels stigmatized and her friends do not really know what to think of this reversal of roles. Related to this stigmatization, some parents even suggest the title’s fever is in the girls’ head, perpetuating one more time the idea that females are much more likely to be mentally ill, in a discriminatory way. Eventually, the main characters’ father concludes that having a boy and a girl are totally different experiences and that a girl is much more likely to suffer structural violence. You nailed it, Abbott.
So, I would recommend The Fever to anyone who is looking for a good, fast-paced mystery where gender roles in high school are deconstructed. I would also recommend it to people who like watching movies about diseases spreading, like the recent Contagion. The Fever is its equivalent in the form a book. Meanwhile, here is my favorite quote from The Fever:
Bad things happen and then they’re over, but where do they go? . . . Are they ours forever, leeching under our skin?