By Megan Abbott
(303 pages; Little, Brown; June 2014)
When somebody calls a book a “page-turner,” it isn’t necessarily a matter of praise; sometimes you turn the pages of a book as quickly as possible, not because you are captivated by the plot or characters, admire the protagonist or want to see how the various plot strands are resolved, but simply because it is so badly written that you want to get it over with as quickly as possible, like oral surgery or an income tax audit.
In Megan Abbott’s latest book, The Fever, this secondary reason to turn pages never comes into play because she does such a superb job with the primary ones. Abbott has written a page-turner in the best possible sense: a book in which the characters are uniformly captivating, the plot is kinkier than a San Francisco bathhouse and the story is resolved in a fashion that leaves the reader feeling completely satisfied.
I read the damned thing in four hours by simply staying up all night long. Now that’s a page-turner.
Briefly, Abbott’s yarn plunks us down in the middle of a Podunk suburban burg where a group of newly pubertal high school girls are undergoing an unsettling ritual that affects each physically and psychologically in a different way. The nature of the proceedings is not immediately disclosed, but later emerges as a central plot device that propels much of the story.
Although the story is organized as tale told by an almost omniscient third-person narrator, the point of view shifts back and forth between three main characters: Deenie, one of the high school girls; her hockey star brother Eli; and her father, Tom, a teacher at their high school who is trying to regain his equilibrium after his traumatic break-up with the mother of his children, Georgia.
Georgia is an absent parent who fled the town after she was involved in an adulterous relationship that resulted in a pregnancy and messy miscarriage. The divorce has left Deenie alienated from her mother; she focuses her life on her friendship with two other classmates: Gabby and Lise.
Eli is less estranged, but is obsessive about hockey and is still working out his feelings about girls; his female classmates are nowhere near as equivocal in their attitude about him, however: he is universally mooned over by female classmates who consider him a rock star.
Years after the separation, Tom remains single and bitter. He engages in minor flirtation with some of the women who surround him, but seems to be seriously interested in only one of them – the high school’s mildly bohemian French language teacher, Miss Loll.
This is the situation as the story opens – homely even plebeian, like that of millions of children and their immediate families all over the U.S. But Abbott wastes little time on this banal domestic slice of life. By page seven, Lise suffers a sudden inexplicable seizure in class that ultimately puts her in the community hospital with a coma and a mysterious medical condition that seems to be getting worse by the hour.
Then a second girl collapses in school. And a third.
The community panics. Loosely led by a pair of anti-vaccination fanatics, many blame the sudden illnesses on a series of shots the girls recently have received. Others point to the phosphorescent algae that swirls in a nearby eutrophied lake as the cause of the frightening symptoms, even though the reservoir has been closed to the public for years. Still others look to additional environmental factors, including the run-down high school building itself.
A few people even credit the outbreak to supernatural causes – evil spirits, bad ju ju. Deenie even begins to believe the attacks may be somehow connected to her own friendship with the three stricken girls.
Arguments occur. Fights break out. Friendships fracture. The school board and hospital find themselves under pressure from the community. Lawyers begin circling like vultures over a decaying corpse, looking for some way to claw personal profit from the situation.
Deenie, Eli and Tom each struggle to understand what is happening to their community and learn the reason for the outbreak of seizures. Meanwhile other children become collateral damage, succumbing to panic attacks, bouts of depression and anxiety, and a host of other physical and psychological ailments.
To say more would be to risk spoiling the story by revealing its denouement. It is sufficient to note that The Fever is no bait-and-switch scam: Abbott does not lure us in without providing a perfectly satisfying resolution to the convoluted plot, and the solution she puts together covers every key bit of the mystery, from the initial ritual right through to a carefully constructed backstory revelation that exposes what initially set the story’s events in motion.
It would be easy to create a group of characters like those in this book who were merely cartoon versions of teenagers – collections of tics that superficially behave like the main figures in this story. I give Abbott major credit for having invested as much time and effort on the youths in this story as she does the adults.
|Megan Abbott (Courtesy of MeganAbbott.com)|
We do have the names and physical actions that help us wrap our heads around each character’s personality, of course: Skye Osbourne, a young woman with a gothic flair who lives with her free-spirited aunt, shrugs a lot, is forever smoking the clove cigarettes she digs from the voluminous folds of her hippie-ish clothing and prattles on like a New Age guru who has spent too much time around a Wiccan coven.
Eli has the habit of tapping his hockey stick everywhere; Gabby has big blonde hair arranged in a stylish fashion, set off with a colored swatch she changes from time to time with dye; Lise, who seems to have transformed butterfly-like from plain Jane to teen beauty overnight, has pale skin and a stretch mark on her thigh that looks a bit like the moon.
But beyond their names and surface traits, each of these kids is unique and believable, acting in ways that range from mature and thoughtful to juvenile and hormonal. They speak to each other in voices ringing clear with authenticity, sometimes uttering thoughts of remarkable depth. For example, after her friend Lise suffers the first horrifying seizure in the middle of a class, Deenie thinks:
You spend a long time waiting for life to start – her past year or two filled with all these firsts, everything new and terrifying and significant – and then it does start and you realize it isn’t what you’d expected, or asked for.
Although The Fever is written to maximize suspense, Abbott’s novel contains its share of sly humor, as well. When one of her classmates begins to relate a story about an exorcism that she had read on the Internet, for example, Deenie responds, deadpan, “Well, the Internet never lies.”
And when another parent begins to lecture him about the vaccination some of the stricken girls have received:
Tom sighed. There was no use talking epidemiology with Dave Hurwich, who always knew more about law than lawyers, more about cars than mechanics. And there was no use trying to explain the nuances of school-board recommendations versus forced government vaccinations of children.
One of the things that makes The Fever so good is the way in which the thoughts of each major character are lucid and intelligent in different ways. Again, Abbott receives high marks for finding ways to make them into complete, three-dimensional people, not just place-markers in the story or tools used solely to move specific plot elements forward.
Even more remarkably, she manages the same neat trick with characters that are relatively minor figures. Thus, Kim Court, a redheaded girl who is one of Deenie’s classmates, is quickly but indelibly sketched, complete with a backstory, a nickname based on the size of her teeth (“Horse”) and a lowly place in the high school pecking order, even though she exists primarily to serve as the third seizure victim and to knock down one theory as to the cause of the seizures.
The Fever has a torrid pace and an aura of dread that Abbott manages to build on every one of the 266 pages that precede the climax. But I suppose you would expect no less from an author who won the Edgar, one of the highest awards in the crime fiction field, for her 2008 novel Queenpin.
Abbott knows what she is about here. My best advice is to sit back and wait for The Fever to break.