In the opening sentences of her new novel, The Fever, Megan Abbott once again demonstrates that she is a master at mining the double meanings of language and emotions. A group of girls are talking with fraught intensity, surely about sex, but a few sentences later, the discussion resolves into greater focus and you realize, that despite the references to 'first time', 'hurt', and 'by the third time', they are not passing along lore about losing their virginity. No, their tense whispers refer to the HPV vaccinations that they are awaiting at school. This clever and tense ironic duality sets the stage for the rest of this haunting and electric novel.
As in Dare Me, Abbott once again builds her tale against the backdrop of the overheated and claustrophobic world of small city teenage girls -- obsessed with boys, sex and the secrets they tell each other, not to mention the ones they keep to themselves. But, where Dare Me's noir-infused tale focused on a triangle between Beth, Addy and Coach Colette, The Fever casts a broader net. Confusion and anxiety is no longer just the province of female adolescence, but instead colonizes an entire school and then the town of Dryden, a decaying post-industrial burgh that seems to be in the landlocked center of the country, though exactly where is never specified. It’s a dreary and depressing sort of place that one character describes as "like living at the bottom of an old man's shoe."
On the surface life in Dryden is predictable, plodding on despite the pollution of an industrial past that created a festering algae bloom in the lake at its center. Against this backdrop we meet sixteen year-old Deenie Nash who lives with her father Tom, a high school chemistry teacher, and her older brother, the hockey obsessed Eli who attracts girls without trying. Her mother left the family two years earlier after a self-destructive affair, driven to distraction by the oppressive nature of life in Dryden. Tom and Eli aren’t ready for Deenie to grow up, and in some ways, neither is she, but the complexities of relationships with her friends Lise, Gabby and Gabby’s newest acolyte, Skye are forcing her towards adulthood with a desperate inevitability.
The unstable dynamics of this circle of friends becomes even more treacherous when first Lise, and then Gabby, are struck by convulsions at school. Soon girls outside of Deenie’s immediate circle are being hospitalized with strange symptoms. As the number of victims of this strange malady grows, the school is paralyzed with wondering who’s next and speculation about what’s causing the girls to fall sick. Parents panic, media rushes in and the police might even be involved.
Abbott dances a fine line here, for while she doesn’t give credence to the most absurd theories about what is really happening, she also conveys the rising levels of hysteria so as to make you question whether even the most ridiculous assumptions might have kernels of truth. In many ways this is a bigger and more surprising novel than Dare Me as it probes familial dynamics, the cost of industrial pollution while also telling a well crafted tale about secrets, misunderstandings and unconsidered actions.
I’d say more, but that would spoil the fun, if you can call the reading of this shiver inducing book, fun.
Highly recommended for readers who liked Abbott’s earlier work, fans of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels and anyone looking for something similar, yet different, after finishing all of Gillian Flynn’s backlist.
ARC provided by the publisher via Net Galley
The Fever by Megan Abbott
Harcover, 320 pages
Little, Brown and Company
Published: June 17, 2014