The Fever, by Megan Abbott

Short Take:  A surreal dreamscape of high school and decay and fanaticism and sex and fear and friendship.

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The Fever opens with three best friends, Deenie, Gabby, and Lise all undergoing some kind of procedure, and then we are slingshotted into a nightmare.  In the middle of class, Lise suddenly has a violent seizure.  Soon Gabby is also displaying bizarre symptoms, followed by several other girls at school, then a few more, then a few dozen more….

The mysterious illness only affects girls in the high school, and finding the cause of it brings out a lot of ugliness.  There’s the crowd that believes that the HPV vaccinations the girls received is the culprit, and the group that wants to blame a local lake with a pollution problem.  Throw in the ones that are convinced that the drinking water is poisoned, and the mental mom who is certain that boys are spreading the illness through sex, and it’s not hard to see the torches and pitchforks being brandished.

We watch the events unfold through the eyes of Deenie, her father Tom, and her brother Eli.  Deenie is a bit of an “everygirl”, a blank slate who defines herself through others’ perceptions of her.  Eli is a hockey player who goes through his share of girls, but is still dazzled by the mystery of them.  And Tom is a teacher at the high school, a good but lonely man who is still struggling (as are Deenie & Eli) with the abandonment by his wife, their mother Georgia.

The perspective shifts rapidly from one to the other, so fast that the narrative is a landscape seen through a kaleidoscope.  The result is a dizzying feeling of unreality, a dream in which a lot of pieces would make sense if only we could look at them for more than a few seconds at a time.

Megan Abbott takes on a lot.  There are echoes of The Crucible and The Lottery, not to mention a thousand other “sudden illness wipes out significant portion of the population” books and movies, and a large dose of Our Town by way of Peyton Place.  (As a side note, I hate reviews that are just long lists of “this book is like these other books”, but it’s impossible to read The Fever without a deep sense of deja vu.)  So many aspects of the story feel familiar, but there’s a twisting, twining, blurry sensation of wrongness throughout, and you feel just a little off-center the whole time you are reading.

The Fever’s one overriding theme is that we are all marked by our experiences.  In the case of one heartbreaking character, the scars are literal, but as Deenie asks herself:  “Bad things happen and then they’re over, but where do they go?”  For young girls struggling to become themselves, and dealing with traumatic experiences, the bad things are never completely gone.  That energy is there, and it makes them, and us, vulnerable in ways we can never anticipate.

I’ll be honest – most of The Fever frustrated me.  There’s a large cast of characters, and the titular illness spreads out in concentric ripples through the high school, taking down wave after wave of girls.  We get brief glimpses of this or that, then our perspective is yanked away, and filtered through another observer in a different place.  The interrelationships of the characters gets more and more convoluted, and the timeline shifts.  It’s more of a collage of images and impressions than a linear story.  And at times, it seems as though all of the narrators are unreliable.

Not to mention, it’s just so unbearably HIGH SCHOOL.  The deep passionate friendships, nonstop texting, terror of and lust for members of the opposite sex, the thoroughly segregated worlds of the kids and the adults, the rumors and lies and secrets. Megan Abbott is brilliant at creating atmosphere, no question, and the smells of chalk dust and locker rooms were almost too realistic for someone like me. (All nerds hated high school.  It’s like a law or something.)

But just when it feels like you can’t endure another minute of the overwrought adolescents, the caring-but-clueless adults, and the increasingly vocal mobs, the ending happens and it’s incredible.  Simple, horrifying, and so true to the rest of the book, I was utterly gobsmacked.  Not in the way that a real twist-shocker-surprise ending can set me back, but in the way of “Yes, this is EXACTLY what happened, OF COURSE it was!”  All of the pieces snap together seamlessly, and the honesty and the rawness of every character left me stunned.

And it’s that final jolt that takes The Fever to the next level.  This is a book that doesn’t really fit into any one genre.  It’s a blend of medical mystery, psychological thriller, high school soap opera, and family drama, but unlike other ambitious books, this one hits the right chords on every level.  Seriously, it’s damn near flawless.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FIVE HAPPY NEURONS

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Currently Reading/Next Review:  Bird Box, by Josh Malerman

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