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Onyx reviews: The Fever by Megan Abbott

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 01/26/2014

Megan Abbot dips back into the lives of teenagers, mostly girls, in her follow-up to Dare Me. Her protagonists are members of the Nash family, which includes single father Tom, who teaches chemistry at the high school, son Eli, a handsome hockey player, and daughter Deenie, who is part of the clique of popular girls at Dryden High.

Abbott wastes no time: The inciting incident happens in the opening pages. One of Deenie's friends, Lise Daniels, experiences what seems to be a grand mal seizure during algebra class and is swept away to the hospital, where her condition worsens. She spends a great deal of the book in a coma. At first it seems like an isolated incident, but then another of Deenie's friends, Gabby Bishop, takes sick onstage during an orchestra recital. Video and cell phone photos of these incidents quickly spread. Then other students follow suit, exhibiting a variety of mysterious symptoms.

In a sense, this brief novel is a mystery, concerning the cause of the spreading disease. Parents are quick to latch onto anything as an explanation. The first suspect is the HPV inoculations all the girls have been getting as part of a mandated immunization program. There has been enough controversy surrounding vaccinations to get people riled up. When that is eliminated, the next likely candidate is the polluted lake that has been barricaded off from public access. What if the tainted water from it has leached into the ground water? As for the school building itself, there is no end of possible toxic sources, but none of these explains the diseases selectiveness. Only teenage girls are afflicted. Not the boys, and not the faculty.

And not Deenie, which puts her at the center of the investigation. The girls have secrets. Mostly from their parents, but also from each other. Some involve teenage crushes, or sex. The girls also took an ill-advised dip in the lake recently. But the question remains: why is Deenie okay, and not her friends?

Though Abbott was inspired by a real event in Le Roy, NY in 2011, The Fever also owes something to Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Abbott's novel isn't about witchcraft, although there is one fey member of Deenie's inner circle who practices mysticism and discusses aethereal matters that none of the others really understand, but the hysteria surrounding this crisis is much the same.

The story is reflected through the eyes of the three Nashes. The family was broken up when Deenie's mother's infidelity was exposed and she moved to a neighboring community. Her relationship with her mother has been strained ever since, and she's at an awkward phase with her father as well. Tom Nash, who has been teaching for many years, understands the phases of teenage girls, but he feels ill-equipped to bring one into adulthood and release her into the wild world, where any manner of dangers lurk. Neither is he sure what to do about his status as a suddenly single man. He goes on dates and flirts with co-workers (especially the sexy French teacher), but his focus is on his two kids, and also on trying to be a voice of reason during parent-teacher meetings when emotions run high and common sense is in short supply. He's not a perfect father, as demonstrated by an altercation he had with his ex-wife's lover, but his heart is in the right place.

The Fever is a carefully observed novel of life in a somewhat insular small town, where everyone knows more than they need to about everyone else. Everyone knows the details of Gabby's father's attack on her mother with a claw hammer, for example. So, when Lise's mother keeps people away from her ill daughter and refuses to discuss her condition, the residents of Dryden feel shortchanged. Text messages and phone calls fly back and forth. As the emergency room grows more crowded with sickly teens and no organic reason can be found for their conditions, the girls turn to YouTube, posting videos that demonstrate palsies and twitches. Media descend upon the town, along with the Department of Health and, most mysteriously, the police.

Chaos reigns. School officials try to keep things together, but their students take off on so many unauthorized excursions that it seems a miracle that there's anyone in class at any given time. There is no central repository of reliable information, only uncertainty, suspicion, over-reacting and conclusion-leaping.

Like a good mystery, the clues are all there for the reader to put together, but only in retrospect because, like a good mystery writer, Abbott cloaks them with red herrings and whips the story into a frenzy. Ultimately it's a tragic story because some otherwise good people do bad things, primarily because of raging hormones and overwhelming emotions. The revelations of the final chapters may invite readers to go back to the beginning to re-investigate the scenes of the crime.  

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