It opens with girls going behind a screen.
A quick prick.
Then they’re done.
A few minutes of discomfort for the injection and a lifetime of sound minds about the chances of ever getting HPV. It’s a new requirement now for girls to be vaccinated. To be protected. “Just in cast,” of course. It’s a safe thing and it’s the right thing to do.
Deenie, Lise, and Gabby have been friends for a long time. High school hasn’t changed their friendship, though they’ve all developed other friendships along the way. They’ve shared secrets and crushes and moments doing things that perhaps they shouldn’t. Like visiting the local lake, closed to visitors because of the mysterious fungus pooling atop of it.
All three got the vaccine, of course.
It’s when Lise’s body begins to contort and she experiences something like a grand mal seizure in the middle of class that the limits of their friendship are tested. The people in class — including Deenie — are horrified by what they’re witnessing. Even when she’s taken out of the classroom, to the nurse, then on to the hospital later in the day, everyone is rattled. Deenie wants to get away, to go see her best friend. Deenie’s brother, keen on what happened, wants to get out of school too. And their father Tom, a teacher at the high school, knows that this is the moment when everything changes. Again.
But Megan Abbott’s The Fever doesn’t stop there. This isn’t only about Lise’s seizure. Or her time in the hospital. Or the fact no one can get answers about what happened to her.
Before long, more girls are having ticks. They’re having seizures or blacking out or acting in ways that are anything but ordinary. Gabby experiences it, as do a number of other girls. All girls. Deenie never does, though. But Deenie did see what Lise looked like when she was
in that coma unconscious. It’s an image forever burned in her brain.
When the school loses its mind over the unexplained madness, it only gets worse when adults in this town get involved.
First the fingers are pointed at the vaccine. The vaccine meant to protect their little girls has turned on those very same girls. Their bodies too young, too inexperienced, too virginal to respond appropriately to such a grown up thing. To even think about such a grown up thing.
One girl who gets the fever, though, never got the vaccine. Busted theory? Not so much. The lengths some adults want to go to convince everyone it’s the vaccine, regardless, are impressive and frightening.
Deenie is convinced it must be the lake, though. The lake that’s off limits. The lake that, just days before, she and Lise and Gabby and Gabby’s tight friend Skye all dipped into. But why isn’t she sick then? Why isn’t Skye sick? How come Gabby’s illness was only short lived, not as debilitating as Lise’s? Deenie’s terrified she’s going to have to speak up about it, which will also mean potentially fessing up to the other thing that happened recently: she lost her virginity to one of her coworkers. She doesn’t want people to know, but she wants everyone to know. Just not this way. Because the thing is, Deenie’s first time wasn’t planned, but done after she learned about Lise’s experience with….well, let’s just say they shared a lot of things as best friends.
The pieces aren’t connecting. The stories aren’t adding up.
If Megan Abbott’s book sounds like it was ripped from the headlines of a story making waves in Le Roy, New York, you’d be right. She as much as notes that as one of her inspirations on her website. But The Fever isn’t about the headlines. It’s about what happens beneath the headlines, what it is that people won’t talk about because those things they won’t talk about are the very things they should be talking about.
The Fever is a story about the fear people have about teen girls. About the mythologies adults build about girls who are emerging: in their friendships, in their relationships with people outside their families, in their sexuality. Of course the cause of the illness going around has to do with a vaccine which rips away the innocence of little girls when they’re too young. Of course there’s something noteworthy in the fact it is only girls who experienced this strangeness.
There’s more to that though. Abbott weaves in really fascinating threads about girls finding their first boyfriends. About admitting to their long-time crushes. About what happens when girls go to desperate lengths to be noticed and when they get the help of other girls to do those very things. About why it is boys are never to blame, never the ones who should be questioned or educated about what roles they play in anything. About how boys get off the hook so easily.
Girl friendships are at the forefront of this story, and those girl friendships are what ties so many of the threads together. Those friendships are part of a mythology, and those girls as group are rarely seen as individuals.
Because when it comes to what caused Lise’s
coma being unconscious, when the truth unravels, one girl is put to blame. But it’s another girl who will suffer for it. Rather than this being a crime with a criminal to point to, though, the story is about “the girls” collective. About girls who get together and do bad things as a unit. Who are scheming, desirous. Who tempt boys with things — and who are desperate enough to garner the attention of boys that they’ll go to lengths at the end of the world to do so.
There is a boy at the center of this. And he’s a boy who is likable, well-depicted, even, perhaps, all-American. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with him at all, and in fact, he’s the one who figures out the secrets behind a lot of what was happening with the girls. He doesn’t come forward, though, and no one asks him to put himself out there in the same way that these girls are spotlighted, hounded, and made to look a million different shades of bad by those around them. He’s not blameworthy — he’s a good character and he’s been put in a terrible position. But the point Abbott raises here is precisely that: why is an innocent boy let off the hook when a number of innocent girls are instead shamed and embarrassed in front of their community? Because it’s the innocence of girls that needs to be protected and discussed. The innocence of boys, though.
That isn’t the same thing.
The explanation for what’s going on is primarily conversion disorder, and I don’t think that’s a spoiler. What set off the disorder was Lise’s seizure in class, which had a very root cause. And that cause lays at the hands of one of the girls who went to the lake. Who felt like Lise was a threat and a bit of a braggart about what happened to her recently.
Though the primary focus of gender and gender politics lies in the teen girls, there is much to be dug out about those same discussions when it comes to adults, too. The community makes an accusation at one point that part of what was causing a problem in the town was that there weren’t enough good men around to be guideposts for these girls. That the girls who suffered from the fever were also girls who didn’t have good fathers or whose parents had very messed up relationships.
Which explained why Deenie did not experience any symptoms — dad is in her life.
The Fever is a complex, compelling thriller for adult readers which immense appeal for teen readers. It’s written in third person, and it alternates viewpoints between Deenie, her father, and her brother. There’s a fascinating family dynamic among them, particularly when it comes to their mother. The writing itself is tight and pretty sparse. This one doesn’t linger; it pulses forward. The energy and intensity are palpable, and because each word matters, within each word is something deeper to mine. The Fever is less about the answer to what is happening and more about questioning why things are happening. It’s unflinching and at times tough to read, particularly as we watch the actual innocence of teen girls ram up against what adults consider the innocence of teen girls. When we hear Lise talk about the first time a boy goes down on her and how it felt to her and what she experienced then we hear adults talk about how girls shouldn’t be vaccinated because no way, no how would their girls ever be sexual beings. It’s uncomfortable and unsettling, and being able to see the story from all angles is what makes those powerful messages about girls and girlhood stand out.
This was my second Abbott book, after Dare Me, and I think I liked this one even more.
Pass The Fever off to readers who love stories that are playing out in the world right now. Pass it off to readers — teens or adults — who want a fast-paced thriller that’s got a literary bent. There’s so much to parse out in this read that it’s easily one readers will finish and want to flip back and revisit to tease out even more. This is an excellent crossover read.
Review copy received from the publisher. The Fever will be available from Little, Brown June 17.