Deenie’s life is turned upside down when her friend Lise collapses into a unexpected and violent seizure in class. One by one, other girls throughout her school fall ill as well. Soon Deenie, her brother Eli (the school’s star hockey player and womanizer), and her father, Tom (a teacher at their high school), find themselves in the middle of a pandemic no one can explain. More girls disappear from class, secrets are exposed, and panic ensues throughout the community.
This novel is all about female sexuality. As soon as the pandemic spreads amongst the female students, the first conclusions adults jump to concern their sex lives — who have they had sexual relations with? Could this be an STD? Is it a bad reaction to the HPV shot? Pregnancy? A sexual parasite? Toxic Shock Syndrome? It doesn’t take long before panic and frenzy spread across the country. Parents are worried, the media has latched onto the story, and everyone has an opinion. It is in this panic that one finds the true strength of The Fever. Megan Abbott has some really interesting things to say about how society views female sexuality and how we talk about it.
There is a prevailing notion that girls are more fragile than boys, and that they need to be protected from the evils of the world. Add that to the various sex-based theories thrown out by “experts” and the media, and you can easily spot two popular narratives when it comes to women and their sexuality. The first being that girls need to protect their sexuality from “lustful boys” because it is something dangerous, and in the case of The Fever, potentially life threatening. And the second is that sexually liberated and/or adventurous women deserve any bad things that happen to them.
However, while the story dives into some important and thought-provoking domain, the writing doesn’t quite keep up. Abbott’s prose often slips into simplistic and repetitive territory. This is a story about the lives of teenage girls but the girls themselves felt like watered down reflections of the real thing. For example, her constant reference to tights, including repeated references to girl’s wearing multiple layers of tights (I still maintain this is not a real thing). The controversy of teenagers wearing tights and leggings as pants is everywhere right now. So therefore Abbott’s teenage cast — on the cusp of their sexual awakening — must adhere strictly to those same trends. Abbott chose to focus on the stereotypes of teenage girls rather than developing a cast of complex characters — they’re catty, they betray their closest friends, they worry about clothes and appearance, and that’s about it. Deenie is the only exception to this treatment and not by a very wide margin.
There is also the interesting choice of the split narrative. Deenie shares the story with her father, Tom, and her brother, Eli. The Fever is a relatively quick read, and as a result the split narrative doesn’t end up doing any of the characters justice. Tom and Eli seem only to exist to be the personification of the way girl’s sexuality bewilders and scares society (and society’s associated responses). Tom, a divorced teacher, is raising his two kids on his own because his wife “Couldn’t keep [her] legs together.” And Eli’s star hockey player status allows him to get in the tights of any girl he wants, and some he doesn’t, as anonymous sexts are regularly sent to his phone. The jumping between these three perspectives makes the novel feel chaotic and disjointed overall.
Like a similar book released this year, Conversion by Katherine Howe, this story is reminiscent of the Salem Witch Trials. But while Conversion used the idea of mass hysteria to explore the pressures placed on young girls in today’s society, The Fever uses it to sensationalize, while only tip-toeing around the issues that plague the real life cases these books are inspired by. There are some really great themes waiting to be explored in this novel, but unfortunately Abbott barely cracks their surface.