Myla Goldberg’s second novel comes at a perfect time, accompanied as it is with declarations from scientists and politician foretelling the nearing dangers of an avian flu pandemic. She sets the story of Lydia Wickett at the outbreak of Spanish Influenza in 1918 and I, for one, kept track of every time I coughed while reading this book.
Goldberg’s first novel, Bee Season, recently released as a movie, proved its author to be talented and informed. Here she displays an even wider capacity. Wickett’s Remedy is an elegant exploration of Lydia Wickett’s evolution from shopgirl to wife, wife to widow, back to shopgirl, then to volunteer at a temporary medical camp erected to discover how the flu is transmitted from person to person. Entwined around Lydia’s plot is the patched story of Quentin Driscoll and his soda empire – pay attention. These two themes are connected and dependant on each other, and lend the ending a specific taste of bitter resignation.
Lydia herself avoids illness during the epidemic, but two of the people closest to her die from it. These deaths lead her to discover what she believes to be her calling: nursing. Doctors are desperate for help, and though she has no training she is hired to assist in an experiment designed to discover why the disease is spreading so violently and what the population can do to stop it. The fact that the test subjects are human is both horrifying and lucky for Lydia, who finds herself attracted to the first man since her husband died.
Goldberg’s depiction of early twentieth-century Boston, before and after the outbreak of disease, are impeccable, saturated with sensory clues and geographically detailed. Her description of the overflowing Carney Hospital is avid with sounds, smells, sights, and expert descriptions of Lydia’s emotional reaction to seeing so many sick people her age. The flu wants the young, her mother warns, and Lydia has the strange experience of watching many of her peers turn old while lying in beds, on stretchers, on the ground.
Period newspaper clippings and snatches of dialogue between soldiers and people on the street add another aura of authenticity to this historical novel. Many of them were lifted right from primary sources; Goldberg is a thorough researcher. Also interesting are bits of correspondence from the current president of QD Soda, fans of the soda, Quentin Driscoll himself writing to his dead child, and the assisted living facility in which Driscoll has been planted. Goldberg shows patience and an excellent ear in deciding when each wisp of information should fall into our reach, the result of which is an intricate, symmetrical spiral of clues ascending to a quiet, effective conclusion.
Goldberg also uses a highly original technique throughout her book. Sidenotes line most pages, brief commentaries from the dead, all the dead, including characters first introduced on the living side of the story. While at first these felt slightly jarring, once I gained a rhythm I could easily incorporate them into my reading. The sidenotes add another texture in the already plush fabric of the novel. They also keep the characters in check and invite the reader to doubt specifics, a strange and courageous invitation from a novelist. One note reads, “Our collective knowledge is surpassed only by Our collective amnesia, which encompasses millions of moments lived and subsequently forgotten.” The Dead argue with the details of the story, different characters remember different things. Just as in life.
Whether or not the foreboding stories on the news concerning avian flu virus turn true, the fear passed from person to person imitates the spread of the disease itself and can inspire the same sense of isolation. It’s encouraging to read an account, albeit fictional, of a woman who turned her own grief into an abiding will to help others through their illness. I hope this spirit claims not a few of us in the event of a similar darkness.