It’s a small community, tight-knit in the ways that places get when the residents watch their children grow up together. The parents have high expectations and mostly refuse to recognize that their teens are moving beyond childhood. The teens are experimenting – drugs, hair color, sex, clothing – but there’s still pressure not to go too far outside the bounds. There’s jealousy, and memories of the kid who threw up on the school bus in second grade. There’s the long shadow of past infidelities, spouse abuse, alcoholism, and divorce that hangs over these kids, who can’t name or deal with the emotions that such trauma bring. Megan Abbott couldn’t have chosen to set The Fever in a more normal place.
Until one of the bright, talented, and popular girls has a seizure in class, followed by another at home, these kids haven’t experienced the trauma of serious illness among their peers. What better way to lose that teenage feeling of immortality than seeing a familiar face twisted in rictus and a familiar body sprawled in a tangle of desks? Add to that the ubiquity of cell phone cameras and that trauma quickly spreads across the world. Scary, right?
Then it happens to another girl, and another, and another. Now the singular tragedy becomes an epidemic and people start pointing fingers. Is it something in a vaccine? A chemical spill? Abuse by the boys? The Internet proves a goldmine of information and opinions and this normal community begins to break down in fear. Is the mystery ever solved? Yes and no – but I’ll leave the reading to you.
Abbott tells this story of growing hysteria through the eyes of the Nash family. Deenie is in her first year of high school, and it’s her best friend Gabby who suffers the first episode. Older brother Eli is a sports standout and the target of aggressive girls who want to score on the popular boy. And dad Tom is a popular teacher at the school all the affected girls attend. That should make for a cohesive family, but grouped together as they are they make a convenient target for those looking for scapegoats.
Each of the Nashes is captured in their individual voice, with the concerns and qualms of each fully articulated. The tone of the rest of the community – from the girls posting YouTube videos of their symptoms and fears to the outraged parents to the authorities trying to sift through mountains of opinion for some sensible explanation – also feels truthful. Knowing that there’s nothing they aren’t seeing on a daily basis, I wouldn’t hesitate to give this to a mature young adult reader, but it’s also worth suggesting to any adult who wants to look across the chasm of time and see what those young adults are facing.
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