Monday, August 18, 2014

The Fever

The Fever by Megan Abbott sends us careening on an angst-filled trip back to high school as we're introduced to the Nash family in this disturbing drama. Deenie Nash is your typical teenage girl coping with divorced parents, boys, and the social dynamics of high school – the cliques, the caste system of popularity, and the stress of not knowing where you fall in that system on any given day. Eli Nash is a good looking hockey player and the proverbial girl magnet. While dad, Tom Nash is a chemistry teacher, still struggling to wrap his head around his wife leaving him, trying to raise two great kids on his own, as well as adjusting to lonely nights and being single.

Their relatively ordinary life is tossed into chaos though when Lise, one of Deenie’s friends, suffers a violent, terrifying and unexplained seizure in class that leaves her fighting for her life. Before long panic starts to spread among the Nash family, school, and community as the cause remains a mystery and more girls start to suffer attacks. With rumors swirling, the list of probable causes grows, everything from a virulent STD, to the HPV vaccine, to the effects of exposure to an eerie toxic lake with a lore all of its own, and as the paranoia grows secrets are revealed which threaten to destroy the families and friendships they touch.

Definitely not one of my favorite reads to date, The Fever was nonetheless an interesting and at times unsettling read. Narrated by the three main protagonists (Tom, Eli and Deenie), this short novel lags in the middle and falls short of delivering the promised chills and suspense central to the plot’s main mystery, yet through its characters the author does deliver a gripping and insightful look at teenage girls and their psyche– the flashes of anger and petty jealousies surrounding newfound passions and unrequited love, the power struggles on par with that of a small nation that take place in school halls, the frightening grip of those quintessential mean girls that rule over boys and girls alike, and the gut-wrenching insecurities which make the high school experience a nightmare for so many.

As for the tale’s mystery, Abbott throws countless red herrings in the reader’s path that unfortunately go nowhere and serve only to undermine the tale’s resolution with a final reveal that turns out to be rather watered-down, anti-climactic, and ho-hum. Though the kind of slow building or ratcheting up suspense that keeps you on the edge-of-your-seat never quite materializes, I will concede The Fever is infused with a dark, almost sinister tone throughout which sets the mood and piqued my interest enough to keep me reading. In addition to one or two compelling characters, Abbott also smartly conveys the ground swell of hysteria which seems to feed off itself during these type of events as parent’s let misinformation and panic prey on their fears and erase all rational thinking as more and more girls became ill.

I’d seen The Fever on so many summer must-read lists that I thought this would be a sure-fire hit; unfortunately for me, it didn’t live up to the hype. It never quite makes up its mind on what it wants to be - mystery or character-driven tale - and in so doing, doesn’t fully deliver on either front.