by Megan Abbott
You may remember the strange circumstances in Le Roy, New York a couple years ago when nearly twenty of the town’s teenage girls suddenly started to experience tics, tremors and other unexplained outbursts. Eventually doctors determined that the first few girls to experience these mysterious symptoms were suffering from conversion disorder, meaning that their bodies were reacting to stressors that their brains were having trouble processing. In one case, it was a parent’s illness. In others, the girls had experienced significant loss or abuse. But as the tics continued to occur in more girls, the phenomena evolved into mass psychogenic illness, a neurological condition in which people experience a physical reaction mirroring the behavior they observe in others.
I didn’t follow the story closely at the time, but what fascinated me about the circumstances was the way these girls had subconsciously become barometers of their community. Apparently the town of Le Roy had been in decline for decades and its subsequent poverty had gradually spiraled downward into a host of socio-economic troubles that were now causing severe stress in the town’s girls.
So when I heard that The Fever was inspired by the events in Le Roy and promised a noir-y, suspenseful examination of contemporary adolescence, I was intrigued enough to jump through a few logistical hurdles to get my hands on a copy as soon as it came out. And it didn’t hurt that it’s being touted as this year’s Gone Girl, a book I thoroughly enjoyed a couple years back.
The central driving question of The Fever is a good one: what is causing the mysterious tics and why are they only occurring in girls? No spoilers here but the answer is pleasingly unexpected and diverges from the real life circumstances. Unfortunately, the ending is the most satisfying part of this book and in order to reach it, I had to contend with a host of flat characters and a thudding plot.
Gone Girl had the opposite problem — its ending didn’t live up to the intensity of the rest of the book. But for me, I didn’t really care about GG’s ending because I had so much fun getting there. I spent the book wrapped up in the twisted psyches of its characters and trying to figure out where the author was taking me as she planted seed after seed on various levels: socioeconomic, interpersonal and psychological. It’s that experience of engagement that sticks with me.
I’ll be curious to see how The Fever fares after so much buildup. My reading of it was lukewarm.
Up Next: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.