Thursday, November 18, 2021

Book 310: The Fever


"As Deenie walked out, a coolness began to sink into her. The feeling that something was wrong with Lise, but the wrongness was large and without reference. She’d seen Lise with a hangover, with mono. She’d seen girlfriends throw up behind the loading dock after football games and faint in gym class, their bodies loaded with diet pills and cigarettes. She’d seen Gabby black out in the girls’ room after she gave blood. But those times never felt like this. Lying on the floor, her mouth open, tongue lolling, Lise hadn’t seemed like a girl at all."

Dates read: April 15-20, 2019

Rating: 6/10

Teenage girls can be sociopaths. With many of the same destructive urges as boys, but less access to sanctioned casual physical aggression, we end up with a capacity for true interpersonal viciousness. I know I did some totally ice cold mean girl stuff when I was in high school, and wound up on the receiving end of something similar as a college freshman. I cut off my best friend for years over a dust-up I can't even remember. I was awful to my own little sister. Those emotions, the bad ones just as much or more than the good, are so close the surface at that time of life. I look back on it now and feel a lot of regret, but I remember how right it all seemed at the time.

I might have had smoother skin and been much thinner, but I wouldn't go back to being a teenage girl and feeling all those feelings again for anything. It's such a confusing and heady place to be, and Megan Abbott's The Fever really digs into the murky territory that friendships at that age can turn into. Deenie Nash and Lise Daniels have been best friends since they were small, but things are starting to change. They've recently started hanging out with Gabby, who a parent would probably euphemistically describe as coming from "a troubled home". And Lise has grown from a cute little kid into a pretty teenager. This has not escaped notice by Deenie, or her older brother Eli (himself the subject of significant attention for his looks), or even her father Tom, a teacher at the high school. This is all putting strain on Deenie and Lise's friendship, and then one day during class, out of nowhere, Lise falls out of her chair and has a seizure.

This alone is troubling, but then Gabby has a seizure too. One girl having a mysterious medical episode in a small town is cause for concern. Two is cause for alarm, especially as the doctors can provide no answers. Deenie thinks it might have been caused by a lake, rumored to be unclean, that all the girls spent time in together shortly before the episodes began. She worries that she might be next. Parents want to protect their daughters, start looking for a culprit. Hysteria starts to build as yet another girl is stricken, much of it focusing on the HPV vaccinations that the school mandated for the girls. The entire Nash family find themselves drawn further and further into the mystery and when it's finally unraveled, it's a doozy.

I won't spoil anything, but the real villain of this book is teenage sexuality. Specifically, teenage girls having sex. That's what the real terror of the parents over the HPV vaccine is driven by, the idea that their daughters might be sexually active. But it's not just the parental fear. The book is steeped in sex in a very realistically teenage way: girls worrying about who's having it, who isn't, if the boy you like is sleeping with someone, if you think he might want to sleep with you, wanting to do it, not wanting to do it. For all I know, boys probably have the same kinds of thoughts, but having been a girl, I know that for all of the innocence that's attributed to female-shaped persons, they are often consumed with questions of sex. Like Deenie with Lise and Gabby, you measure yourself against your friends: who's the desirable one? Who's the innocent? Who's the slut?

Thematically, this is a potent work. Abbott beautifully captures the atmosphere of small town paranoia and the thrill and terror of being what Britney Spears would call not a girl, not yet a woman. But reading this book had its frustrations as well: the tension ratcheted up too high, too soon, leaving it nowhere to really go once things got really dramatic. The plot felt slightly underbaked and the pacing was kind of stop and start. And I thought having the dad, Tom, as a main character didn't really work. I appreciated the inclusion of Eli, the perspective on teenage boys and sex made the book as a whole feel more balanced, but Tom didn't add much for me. All together, I think this was an interesting, well-written novel and I'd recommend it if teenage psychological thriller is a genre you enjoy!

One year ago, I was reading: Plain Bad Heroines

Two years ago, I was reading: The Talented Mr. Ripley

Three years ago, I was reading: Uncle Tungsten

Four years ago, I was reading: The House of Mirth

Five years ago, I was reading: Eleanor of Aquitaine

Six years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

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