The Fever by Megan Abbott

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-Fever-Megan-Abbott

From Goodreads:

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?

16 thoughts on “The Fever by Megan Abbott

  1. Although not my usual kind of book and probably not one I would read I must admit this does sound good, with some interesting themes. This is the second review of this I have seen recently.

    1. I wouldn’t have requested it either, but that’s the magic of working with publicists and publishers. They send you new things to try out 🙂

  2. Another great review from you Elena. I love the intelligence you bring to all your reviews, and the way you leave me thinking. Is it just me or is this YA label relatively new, at least in the UK? We all read children’s books before – in my case – heading for Agatha Christie, Dick Francis and Alastair MacLean, etc. Basically whatever was in the house, or our local book shop, where the owner gave me John Buchans, and his wife – oh joy of joys – introduced me to Ruth Rendell, from the start. Am I a cynic if I just say YA seems like a new customer base to sell books too? And what age constitutes YA – 15? 16-18?? Younger? Older? My daughter, who’s 19, also segued effortlessly into my bookshelves. I suspect she’d think I was being patronising if I gave her something labelled YA – not to detract from some excellent YA novels.

    1. Woops, that went online before I wanted it to.

      Regardig YA, I just don’t like it at all. Crime fiction was the bridge for me between children’s literature and adults’ literatur. I do think YA only perpetuates a Peter Pan myth. I think it is meant for teenagers, but I know quite a lot 20-somethings that still read it. I mean, to each her own, but I am glad there are still people like your daughter.

  3. Two things:

    First, I love your reviews and must echo crimeworm about the intelligence and insight you bring to your reviews. Second, I’m an adult and I read YA novels and some of the social issues and cultural diversity is not geared only to teens. You can still have a mature storyline that deals with difficult issues featuring teen protagonists. I have my favorites in that genre that are mostly contemporary or fantasy. As with every genre, there are good and bad examples of the genre.

    1. Thanks, Keishon, it means a lot that you appreciate my reviews so much.

      Regarding YA, I didn’t mean to offend anyone. I am sure there are good books out there. I did enjoy The Hunger Games, but I do not like the supposed target audience the genre has. I am sure there are teens who love YA, but I am sure there are adults too, and that’s totally fine. But why create this need for teens? As if venturing into the so-called adults’-literature were scary or not meant for them… As a reader and as a (hopefully) future professor, I do not like this idea, neither do I like labelling genres according to age. Being in my 20’s doesn’t mean I cannot connect with stories of people on their 50’s. Same with teens.

      1. It could be useful if you’ve a teen who’s a reluctant reader – or communicator. You could read it together, or (more likely) agree to each read x no. of pages each night. For the reluctant reader, it would show them books can be more than a solitary pursuit, and for a teenager who seems to find everything you say dull, it’d provide neutral ground to open up discussions, particularly if you choose carefully. My daughter is a voracious reader like me; my son, I suspect, is ADHD but to keep him busy, after a disastrous schooling, my father kept him busy on the family far. Now he has a full-time job on a fish farm, yet still finds plenty to do on the farm after work. Healthier than Ritalin, imo.

        1. I agree with you Keishon, and I do think it’s just a marketing ploy to get a traditionally reluctant reader group to feel there’s something specifically designed with older teens, or whomever. Or maybe I’m just a cynic! Queenpin sounds interesting, Keishon?

      2. You didn’t offend me at all and you make some valid points. Honestly, I think YA is just a label and usually has little to do with the age group. Some of the subject matter is really for adults. Sorry to hijack the thread on YA when we should be discussing Megan Abbott! I have a few of Abbott’s books in my stacks so I hope to get to her this year. I think I have Queenpin and she writes hardboiled novels, more noir I think.

  4. This is the first I’d heard of The Fever, but it sounds very interesting–and timely. It sounds like there are a lot of important topics touched upon. I find your observation about American English interesting. I don’t fell like that’s something I really notice when I’m reading–maybe because I don’t read enough contemporary novels, or maybe I’ve just read too many British novels over the years. But I suppose it’s something that could be jarring if you’re not expecting it!

    1. I think it comes from not being a native English speaker, and also having studied English Philology, I was taught to choose either British or American and stick to it. In order to do that you have to learn the differences, otherwise it’s very rare it’ll come out naturally.

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