Paradoxically, the phenomenon in The Fever has a chilling effect on characters and readers alike.
The girls fall to the ground, one after the next; they writhe and tensions rise but blood is chilled.
“As Deenie walked out, a coolness began to sink into her. The feeling that something was wrong with Lise, but the wrongness was large and without reference.”
What Deenie observes is something new and frightening. (For readers of a certain age, it is impossible to meet a character named Deenie and not think of Judy Blume’s novel of the same name: isn’t it? It’s an apt allusion for a novel preoccupied with the trials of coming-of-age.)
“She’d seen Lise with a hangover, with mono. She’d seen girlfriends throw up behind the loading dock after football games and faint in gym class, their bodies loaded with diet pills and cigarettes. She’d seen Gabby black out in the girls’ room after she gave blood. But those times never felt like this.”
Megan Abbott has explored the mindscape of a teenage girl before too, in The End of Everything. Deenie Nash is a believable character, inhabiting an age of extremes.
“You spend a long time waiting for life to start – the 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.”
But Megan Abbott also presents material from the perspective of Deenie’s brother, who is slightly older than Deenie, and their father, Tom.
Tom’s perspective introduces a different kind of discomfort for readers who might long for a more experienced evaluation than Deenie’s. This allows readers to take a step back from the teen-drama-soaked point-of-view and more broadly consider the risks posed in this situation.
In some ways, Tom operates as an EveryParent. “Sometimes it felt like parenting amounted to a series of questionable decisions, one after another. “
But emotions run high for characters of all ages in this novel; Tom’s sense of helplessness adds to the sense of overwhelming distress.
Ultimately, these events are disturbing because they are rooted in universal fears, largely in the unknown.
“When you thought about your body, about how much of it you couldn’t even see, it was no wonder it could all go wrong. All those tender nerves, sudden pulses. Who knew.”
And, beyond the physical risk, there are the psychological tremors which resonate with readers, as the characters struggle to accept the unfathomable.
“…what was really bothering her… was the realization that you can’t stop bad things from happening to other people, other things. And that would be hard forever. He’d never quite gotten used to it himself.”
The Fever focuses on a perfect pairing: the escalated emotions and extremes of being a teenager and the heightened tension and paranoia which accompanies a seemingly-contagious illness.
Megan Abbott’s style is deliberately clean and her background writing noir fiction shines through. Her tone is functional and poised-to-alarm-at-any-moment, and readers can relax in her capable storytelling hands.
The Fever is a well-written page-turner; however, the resolution provides the potential to add an additional layer to the story (as does one element of the story which does not ultimately figure in the resolution but does act as an interesting diversion), but this is not a novel which invites rereading.
Megan Abbott’s fear-soaked story does not inhabit the more analytical space that novels like Maggie Helwig’s Girls Fall Down or Emily Schultz’s The Blondes occupy; the social pressures that female characters experience do play a pivotal role, but The Fever does not veer into layered commentary.
Smart and solid storytelling, The Fever engages and entertains; it deserves a place on summer reading lists and the shelves of readers who enjoy crime fiction with a focus on characterization.
Have you read her fiction before? Or, is this on your reading list?