In The Fever, Megan Abbott’s latest novel, the author returns to the same setting as her previous book, Dare Me. That is to say that The Fever is set in the world of high school girls. Despite the occasional strong language and mature themes, the publisher has hopes that this adult novel will cross over into the young adult market based on its premise, which goes something like this: in an idyllic small town, a group of teenage girls contract a mystery illness, whose symptoms include spasms and convulsions, leading the town’s parents to react in a state of frenzy.
Could it be toxic shock syndrome? Is it the result of a bite from bats? Does it have something to do with the town’s polluted lake? Or is this ailment the result of HPV vaccinations given only to girls?
If that sounds all too familiar, it should for two reasons. First of all, Canadian readers might find the plot of The Fever to hew rather closely to Maggie Helwig’s earlier Girls Fall Down. In that novel, young girls pick up a strange sickness in the Toronto subway system that causes rashes and vomiting. Secondly, The Fever is inspired by real life events. Whether or not Abbott knew of Helwig’s book, The Fever is based on news stories from a few years ago about a group of more than a dozen teenagers in Le Roy, New York – most of them girls – who attended the same high school and came down with uncontrollable spasms and Tourette’s-like tics.
However, the story idea, based on other literary works or real life, is essentially a showcase for a feminized version of a Jonathan Lethem novel. If you’re familiar with Lethem, you’ll know that any time a character has sex, something bad immediately follows (consider the events of the final chapter in his recent Dissident Gardens). Considering that the girls in The Fever are sexually active, one can quite easily draw a line between sex and illness, making this novel something of a cautionary tale of venereal disease in metaphoric terms. The Fever is a tome in the “sex is evil” sweepstakes, which might be a tad misogynistic, if it weren’t for the fact that its author is a 40-something woman, one with six previous novels under her belt.
So what touches off the illness, here? Well, its central character, Deenie, has sex with a co-worker at the pizza joint she’s employed at when she’s not in school. Soon after, her best friend Lise suffers a seizure in class and is hospitalized. Soon after that, other girls start falling prey to whatever it is that is spreading through the close-knit community. Lise’s mother lays the blame at the feet of men in a passage when she meets up with Deenie’s father Tom, a high school teacher, outside the family’s front door: “The dangers our girls suffer at your hands. ... We know and we’ll do anything to protect them. To inoculate them. Anything. ... All of you, ... Spreading your semen anywhere you want. That’s the poison.”
The Fever clearly has sex on the mind – “Why did everything have to be about sex, she wondered,” thinks one character – and as much as males seem to be a threat to some of the characters, there’s also something to be said about the femme fatale. This is a novel about the wants and desires of young women, who are suddenly exploring their sexuality in turbulent times. To give much more away might be spoiling some of the delicious twists to the novel, but, suffice to say, the book drips with rich metaphors, including a section at the very start where the main characters line up to get their HPV vaccinations.
The novel’s opening line, then? “The first time, you can’t believe how much it hurts,” referring, of course, to the needle in skin. However, we all know that that first taste of carnal pleasure can be a painful one for women, so the line works as a double entendre.
Sex is also seen as a threat to the young protagonists, as this example set in a classroom during a sex ed talk given by a teacher:
”See how wide this area is?” she (the teacher) said, holding a diagram of a cervix across her pelvis, making the girls in the front row flinch. “At your age, this is the area most vulnerable to invasion. It’s utterly exposed. In a few years, it will retract. You’ll be safer.” ...
“Until then,” Ms. Dyer said, pointing to the sink handle on the lab unit, “you are as open as the mouth on that faucet.”
While one could probably write a thesis on the novel’s main themes of female sexuality, The Fever does work on a whole other level. It is a taunt, gripping page turner once you get past the addled confusion as to what may be causing these young girls to be sick. In particular, there’s a section of the novel set at a parent-teacher conference in the school’s gymnasium that’s meant to assuage the fears of the community’s adults, but winds up causing more paranoia and hand-wringing due to the lack of answers as to what’s exactly the root of this mystery disease and why it is only affecting girls.
If there’s anything The Fever lacks, it’s a wholly tied-up conclusion. But given that this story is based on real life events, that might not be all that surprising. Also, Abbott has a hushed, very masculine sort of writing style that’s hard to express or convey in words – the greatest proof of this is that the male characters in the book come off as being the most believable. It’s an effect that worked great in Dare Me, which was set in the highly competitive and militaristic, man-like world of cheerleading squads, but comes off as a bit on the heavy handed side, here.
The Fever is a claustrophobic read, one that acutely portrays a small town in turmoil, matching the growing pains and weird feelings of post-puberty. The official response to the crisis feels true, especially as the stakes get higher and higher and more girls fall ill. Abbott has written a gripping tale of teenagers grappling with a crisis, especially in the book’s twisty and harrowing final pages, and even though all may not be resolved, there’s a certain satisfaction that comes with reading this novel.
The Fever is as much a coming-of-sexual-age book as it is something of a medical thriller, and Abbott has effectively penned something that is breathtaking and divine. There’s a lot to chew on here with its subject of female sexuality, and you might just wind up crossing your legs multiple times when reading this book. Is sex evil? Well, after reading The Fever, you’ll certainly conclude that it’s definitely fraught with a great deal of peril, and you might think twice about the consequences that come about from simply following your base, animal urges.
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