I first picked up a book by Megan Abbott back in 2009. That book was Queenpin, the story of a nameless narrator’s apprenticeship under a 1950s female mob boss named Gloria Denton. I was immediately hooked and went on to read Bury Me Deep, based on the true story of Winnie Ruth Judd, the “Trunk Murderess” of the 1930s who murdered her husband and shipped him from Arizona to California in a steamer trunk. Here’s what I said in my original review of Bury Me Deep: “While fiction hardly lacks for strong female protagonists, one of the things I like about Abbott’s books is that her women are so very pragmatic. These aren’t intellectual heroines, plucky young women defying convention by sneaking into the boys’ club or determining not to marry and instead pursue a life of the mind.” (Always quote yourself whenever possible, people. All the cool kids do. Like Kanye.)
In 2011, when I read about The End of Everything, the story of a 13-year-old girl whose best friend disappears, I was excited to see how Abbott’s ability to create such compelling heroines would translate to a more modern, more conventional plot line (let’s face it—many, many novels have been written about missing girls). Sadly, when I read the novel I found it didn’t seem to translate at all. In fact, I felt like I had picked up a book by another author entirely (and maybe in some ways I had). While I didn’t dislike The End of Everything, it lacked the darkness and the gumption of her earlier books.
I hoped for better when I read the blurbs about her 2012 novel Dare Me, which while entertaining enough felt like little more than Mean Girls meets psychological thriller. While she successfully brought back the darker atmosphere of her earlier works, the characters—popular, oversexed cheerleaders with so much raw ambition they make Cersei Lannister look like an amateur—felt like caricatures.
I admit, I approached The Fever with some trepidation. I say some because the truth is, Abbott is a terrific writer with a unique voice, and so she’s one of those writers who will always make me jump at the chance to read what she’s written, even if I’m just hoping for better than last time. Luckily, The Fever did not disappoint—not by a longshot.
In The Fever, Abbott maintains her own unique style while somehow also channeling the empathy of Judy Blume and the edginess of Joyce Carol Oates. Deenie Nash’s best friend Lise is struck by a mysterious seizure at school one morning. The next day, Deenie and Lise’s friend Gabby is also struck by a seizure during a school orchestra recital. As the days go by, more and more girls at the high school are affected by a mysterious illness that includes symptoms such as uncontrollable twitching and violent vomiting. Parents and teachers are panicked, the whole small-town community of Dryden in an uproar.
Only the girls are afflicted. The boys are fine. Some parents believe a (semi) mandatory vaccine is to blame, others believe pollution in the town lake is the problem, while others still blame demonic possession. The book alternates points of view, from Deenie to her father Tom, a chemistry teacher at the school, to her brother Eli, a popular Senior hockey player. This shift is effective because while Tom and Eli are directly affected by the town’s hysteria and their concern for Deenie, their sections provide a broad viewpoint of Deenie and her friends, creating a less insular experience than the ones Abbott created in her previous two novels. Deenie (named for Blume’s Deenie, perhaps?) also has some of the pragmatism and gumption of Abbott’s early heroines. Abbott also does such a terrific job of—how else to say this?—showing what it means to be a girl. Not a cheerleader, not a prom queen, but not Carrie, not an outcast. Just a girl, with all those mysterious feelings about herself and her friends, all the changes taking place physically and mentally, the safety of staying in childhood and the excitement of becoming something more, something else, and how all that shifts alliances and balances of power in relationships that once seemed so easy. “She thinks I need her but she’s the one who needs me,” Gabby says of Deenie. “I make her feel more interesting.”
Abbott does a terrific job of drawing out the suspense and creating a palpable atmosphere of hysteria. Although the subject matter is completely different, it reminded me of an Australian film (from long, long ago) called Picnic at Hanging Rock, a psychological thriller about the mysterious disappearance of several girls and a teacher and the hysteria that ensues. It’s a frightening movie because it never resolves anything, and the audience is left to wonder whether a crime was committed at all, or if perhaps the missing women were simply the victims of an accident while hiking in the rocks. And if The Fever has a weakness, I would say it’s the ending, which is not implausible but perhaps a little too neatly tied off, at least for my tastes. I would have preferred that Abbott maintain the mystery right through to the end. Four out of five stars.
Full disclosure: I received my copy of The Fever from NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.