Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Fever.
This novel was particularly taxing for me—not because the concept is poor but rather the marketed demographic, which is too broad. If read by young adults, The Fever is certainly appropriate: emotions vacillating from one moment to the next, the desire to be a woman clashing with the urge to remain childlike, secure in a scary world. Abbott is known for her novels on young women’s issues, the stresses and challenges that affect the years between childhood and adulthood.
It isn’t surprising that this story is set in a high school in Anywhere, USA. The core characters in the novel are three best friends: Deenie, Gabby and Lise. Deenie has known Gabby since childhood; Lise, with her blooming sexuality and interest in the opposite sex, has recently become a magnet for male attention. When to lose your virginity is a familiar topic for these teens and their friends, including awareness of the sexual diseases that come with the territory, injections for HPV common. They connect through social media, a breeding ground for gossip and rumors as well as a means of staying in touch when away from school, the Internet a source of information. When Lise suffers a strange fit during class, Deenie watches as her friend falls to the floor, jerking and twitching. Later, when word comes that Lise is in the hospital, possibly in a coma, the school is rife with speculation. Girls gather in close groups to worry over what is wrong with Lise.
Soon after, Gabby is struck by the malady and rushed to the hospital for tests with no helpful results. Before long others succumb, the emergency room awash with teenage girls in various states, shaking with uncontrollable tremors, no one able to ascertain the nature of the attacks. Ironically—and obviously—the victims are all girls, suggesting the kind of hysteria seen at the Salem witch trials in the 1600s, when a group of young women achieved notoriety and attention by naming the witches among them and claiming bedevilment by Satan as they screamed and clawed at themselves. In an era of civilized enlightenment, other causes are investigated by health and police officials who suspect some kind of contamination. Irate parents demand to know what is attacking their daughters, Lise’s frantic mother hiring an attorney. Panic rises with each inept response as parents demand answers, desperate to assign blame. Of all the girls, only Deenie has failed to fall prey to the mysterious illness, a fact that creates much speculation and worry that she is a “carrier” of whatever it is.
All this drama might be interesting—is, in fact, by the time the book ends and all issues have been resolved—but the majority of the novel centers on the hysterical reactions of parents and the daughters who spread both fear and gossip in their fervor to be part of and contribute to the story. Whatever has happened to Lise, perhaps the most legitimate problem, the issues of the others seem to have been bred by hysteria and the need for attention. There are common sociological connections: girls from fatherless homes, the pressures of looming sexuality, one girl’s crush on an older boy who chooses another, the teens’ mistrust of authority, the susceptibility of malleable girls to the stronger personalities of their peers, the catastrophic thinking that permeates adolescence. A book meant for a younger audience becomes torture for more mature readers. Abbott possesses a penchant for dwelling in the minds of her young protagonists and their endless ruminations, fears, suspicions and exchange of explanations from one to another—none of which moves the plot forward but is fine fodder for a younger audience. Character development is shallow, the plot a little clever (but not too) and the problems legitimate—again, for the right audience.