Late at night in a silent hospital, deep in the throes of a strange illness, one of The Fever’s “afflicted girls” records a message to the world: “Listen!…Whatever’s happening to us…It’s bigger than everything.” While this may or may not prove literally true by novel’s end—I’m not one to spoil a book entirely—it certainly has the ring of figurative accuracy. The effects of the girls’ mysterious illness seem to go far beyond the physical. “Are you sure it’s her?” one of the girls asks when she sees a friend in the hospital, and her question gets at the heart of an idea central to The Fever: that we—our bodies, our minds, our souls—are shockingly prone to change in the face of external pressure.
Megan Abbott’s latest novel begins when 16-year-old Lise is rushed to the hospital following an apparent seizure. Lise’s rapidly deteriorating condition spells upheaval for her best friend Deenie, who has little time to recover from her shock; the very next day, another friend—Gabby—falls prey to strange muscle spasms. The illness spreads throughout the female population of Dryden High School with alarming speed, and while theories abound as to the causes of the epidemic, no one can figure out how to check its progress. In the midst of rising chaos and panic, Deenie—as well as her father Tom and her brother Eli—must unravel a complex and disturbing web of secrets in order to make sense of the outbreak.
Dryden’s medical community may be baffled by the girls’ symptoms, but readers of The Fever will have little trouble guessing that sex is somehow central. It is the common denominator of every theory, from the plausible to the outlandish; if the epidemic is not an STD, perhaps it is a side effect of the HPV vaccine, or a kind of group insanity brought on by overheated adolescent longings.
And, then, of course, there are the more subtle, aesthetic clues—images of permeable bodies and fecundity run amok that cling to the novel’s pages. Fittingly—if disturbingly—the school’s efforts to ferret out the causes of the disease bear an uncomfortable resemblance to society’s all-too-frequent attempts to pin down and pathologize a “mysterious” and “dangerous” female sexuality: Health officials “[scoop] out every hidden cavity, [scrape] matter from each crease and furrow.” Most notable of all, though, is the lake in which Deenie, Lise, and Gabby go swimming shortly before the girls fall ill. Algae-ridden, toxic, and officially off-limits, the lake, with its “lush green carpet” and “iridescent water,” nonetheless holds a kind of primordial sway over the town’s inhabitants, drawing them beneath its surface and insinuating itself within them; shortly after a bout of sickness brought on by swimming in the lake, Tom’s unfaithful ex-wife Georgia dreams that she “put her own fingers down her throat, all the way down, and felt something like the soft lake floor there, mossy and wet and tainted.” Tom, for his part, feels that Georgia “was never the same after that,” and Deenie worries that the lake is now “in them” too.
The expertise and subtlety with which this fear of permeability and corruption is sketched out helps distinguish The Fever from other, more run-of-the-mill erotic thrillers. Even more importantly, perhaps, it allows Abbott to sidestep the most obvious—and most unfortunate—of the novel’s potential implications, from the politically au courant (vaccines should be avoided, particularly if they aim to make sex safer), to the more nebulous but pervasive (female sexuality is the root of all evil). Sex itself is neither good nor bad in The Fever, but it—like everything else—is susceptible to a kind of external rot that seeps inside the novel’s characters and twists them. Tom worries at one point about all of the ways in which his daughter’s “small, graceful little body” is vulnerable to harm, but the real danger in The Fever proves to be the psychological changes brought about by trauma. “Lise is beautiful and there is nothing dark and messy in her,” one character remarks, “Nothing bad ever happened to her that I ever heard of except her dad dying when she was a baby. She’s unmarked. No one asks to be marked up.” Once “marked up,” though, we’re never the same: “It’s like it’s everything about me now,” the same character says later, “It’s inside me and everywhere. It was always in me. I couldn’t stop myself.”
It is this kind of psychological insight that gives The Fever its surprising pathos. It is not sex that ultimately provides the key to the novel’s central mystery, but rather desperate, all-consuming love, and there is something almost unbearably sad about the teenage characters’ ill-equipped attempts to cope with emotions and experiences that would be daunting and painful even for an adult. For all its compulsive readability, The Fever is not really the kind of book that aims to shock you. Instead, it lingers with a kind of complex, bittersweet poignancy that belies its page-turning plot and relatively spare prose.
The Fever is a novel I approached with some trepidation; simply put, I feared that it would prove yet another veiled diatribe on the dangers of female sexuality—one that alternately paints women as chaste angels in need of protection and as dangerous temptresses in possession of a raw and powerful sensuality. But while The Fever dabbles in these stereotypes, it ultimately, I think, subverts them; the threats in Abbott’s novel are never quite what they seem. It is, in the end, well worth the read.