“The Fever” by Megan Abbott (2014)

Sometimes when I read a book, rarely based on the type of books I tend to read, I get the feeling like the author had a very specific idea or scene in mind and constructed an entire novel around that thought. Problem is, the original thought or idea is not strong enough or layered enough to support a complex or lengthy narrative. An image or section reads so vividly and strongly that makes it very easy to identify the inspiration, while all other content is pure filler – a one-dimensional conceit with no substance. This is one of those cases.

In the case of The Fever I did something I don’t think I’ve ever done before. Aside from a few positive reviews, the main reason I picked up the novel was based on the cover. I am one of those people who doesn’t judge a book by its cover. It is designed in general to entice someone into buying it, and if a movie version has been made and the book bears the film’s images on its cover, that alone is enough to turn me off. If the cover has the face of Jennifer Aniston or Judi Dench or Brad Pitt I simply cannot bring myself to buy it if I can’t find the original cover. That type of marketing doesn’t work for me. This is in spite of a conversation I had years ago, while in college, when a friend told me that if I liked the cover of an album or a book, then most likely I would love it. Well, clearly this is not true. I was incredibly intrigued by Abbott’s book cover. It was strong, dynamic, haunting, terrifying. It seemed to be a promise of the type of work that would be captivating, in the same way the Arthur Miller’s The Crucible was. Too bad this picture matches the image the author so clearly held steadfast while writing it and little more.

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The story is narrated in the third person from the vantage point of three characters, all members of the same family: the too caring and perfect dad, Tom; the too beautiful but sensitive heart-breaking star-athlete son, Eli; and the too inquisitive and secretive yet sweet and observant daughter, Deenie. Deenie is a teenage girl. She has teenage girl friends. Said friends do teenage things and behave in teenage ways. The lives of teenage girls are mysterious, layered, problematic, difficult, astounding, frustrating, and inscrutable. We don’t know them. They don’t know each other. They don’t know themselves.

The town in which the story is set is haunting and dangerous and menacing. There seems to be terror and peril seeping and oozing from every corner: the sports fields, the woods, the lake, the very sky. And then it hits. A mysterious illness takes hold of one of Deenie’s best friends, Lise. Teenagers act the way they do: rumors, fun-making, gossip, hearsay. Then the illness seems to spread, infecting what seems to be Deenie’s entire circle of friends and acquaintances.

megan
Megan Abbott

The plot completely hinges on what will happen next, even though nothing does. The breathless speed of events in which the reader never really knows anything distracts from the fact that the author doesn’t really know where to go either. She introduces and abandons lazy red-herrings that with a lot of work on the reader’s part could be social commentaries on the anti-vaccination movement, hands-off parenting, mass hysteria, the parasitic role of the media, over-reliance on technology, the helplessness of human existence, and female interactions and social constructs. In Abbott’s hands, however, these all land flatly and lazily in a haphazardly way that seem to expect an undeserved recognition.

I was overall disappointed, and by the time the final reveal arrived I barely cared, and still felt cheated and underwhelmed. It had gotten to the point where if the entire novel had not been set on another planet or if the supernatural were not involved then something impermissible and reprehensible would have occurred. No alternate realities or magic appeared: mission not accomplished, Ms. Abbott. The whole thing reads as if it were a really bad young adult novel, which it isn’t. I did not care for it. No more will I let a cool book jacket guide me in deciding how to occupy my time, since watching paint dry would have probably been a better use of it anyways.

 

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