(Mild Spoilers relating to the ending. Approach with caution.)
In late 2011, 12 female high school students in the working class town of Le Roy, New York, developed uncontrollable symptoms similar to Tourette’s syndrome, such as tics and spasms. The events caused widespread panic in the area as well as national news coverage as multiple tests were taken and all manner of explanations ruled out. Eventually, the sufferers were diagnosed with Conversion disorder, formerly known as hysteria, caused mostly by stress. It’s an intriguing situation, one that still has many questions unanswered, so it’s understandable by Megan Abbott would want to write a novel with such a premise.
While the parallels between Abbott’s story and the incidents in Le Roy are evident, Abbott is more interested in exploring the tensions and paranoia surrounding the modern American teenage girl. Popular young student Lise suffers an epileptic style attack in class, the result of which is immediately filmed by a student and put online. As the anxiety spreads through the small town, fuelled by uncertainty and a desperation for answers, the blame shifts towards the HPV vaccine, a convenient scapegoat that nonetheless highlights the panic that shadows over young women and the control they have over their own bodies.
Worries over sex, the strength of their friendships and the everyday gossip in the school halls threaten to boil over as more and more girls are struck down with similar symptoms. The videos of the young women’s attacks as well as some of their own personal confessions fuel outside interest in the story while exacerbating the central fears of the community. Fingers are pointed, theories are tossed around by those with little to no experience in the matter and everybody has to know what’s going on.
Abbott is not afraid to delve into the darkness of these fears, particularly with Deenie, daughter of teacher Tom and the apparent connection between all the sick young women, whose panic over being the carrier of the illness fuels her uncertainty and desperation to find answers, even as she worries what they may be. As the narrative shifts between Deenie, her father Tom (the peacekeeper of sorts who still struggles with his divorce) and brother Eli (a voyeur to the strange alien world of adolescent girls), the reader experiences a thriller-like journey through this familiar town where everybody knows everyone else’s business, or makes it their mission to know it.
This is where Abbott excels, keeping the tension taut throughout while capturing the mood of panic and uncertainty that spreads like a contagion through the town. Refreshingly, Abbott is also skilled at creating realistic teen dialogue that doesn’t feel overdone or forced, a task that has seen many a good writer fall at the first hurdle. She also resists the temptation to characterise the groups of young women as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘angels’ or ‘bitches’. None of them is a villain but they all carry their secrets, their insecurities and lash out at one another in the calculating, passive-aggressive way one can only pull off as a teenager.
All of this, all of this literary skill and expert story-telling, is what makes the ending of the novel so disappointing. Making The Fever thriller-like in its execution may have ultimately been a mistake since such a narrative choice requires a bang of an ending rather than the ambiguity a story like this would excel with. After spending a good 80% or so of the novel dispelling myths surrounding adolescent girls and the supposed power of their sexuality, the conclusion is a cop-out that dismisses the complexities of these women and falls into tired and predictable traps about bitter jealous girls and the men they ‘steal’ from other women. It’s a black and white answer to a question in shades of grey, and while it doesn’t entirely undo the great work that precedes it, it does feel like a let-down.
That’s not to say that there’s nothing to recommend about The Fever. It’s still a gripping read imbued with complexities and sympathy for its characters who are all as much a danger to one another as the illness that seems to be taking them all down. It’s never anything less than gripping, even as the narrative takes a while to become comfortable with switching between three points of view, and while it’s not as great as the sum of its parts, those parts are worth your time.