Saturday I met with my book club to discuss, Fever by Mary Beth Keane. Fever takes the reader to the turn of the twentieth century in New York. There we follow the life of Mary Mallon, alias Typhoid Mary. She was a carrier of typhoid although she was never sick with it. It was believed that she transmitted typhoid to victims through her cooking.
Now when I first read what this book was about I was immediately sold on reading it. I had heard of Typhoid Mary but I couldn’t remember if it was at school or somewhere else. So, I figured I’d learn more about Mary Mallon and more about typhoid. Needless to say, I got a two-dimensional Mary Mallon and a highly developed story about immigrant life in New York. If anything, the later was the best and only true historical part of the book in my opinion. The descriptions of what immigrants were living at that time were vivid, informative, and contained some historical events. The first half of the book is a repetition of how Mary doesn’t accept what’s she’s been told about how she transmits typhoid. Other than that nothing happens. Most of what is written in the book about Mary’s character and the people she meets isn’t true and that’s where I can’t see how the book is marketed as a historical fiction. The reader doesn’t even get any scientific explanations about typhoid or details on the doctor’s research either. Among all of this the character of Mary Mallon is not really dealt with. Her character is brash and unlikable, coupled with the story being told in third person throughout ninety percent of book, which doesn’t help the reader to be the least bit sympathetic to her cause.
Allegedly, there is no concrete information on Mary Mallon, except one letter which was written to her lawyer. Despite this the author couldn’t seem to develop Mary Mallon’s character other than in repetition and in situations that were highly unbelievable for the time. As a matter of fact, not much of what the author tried to get us to believe about Mary had been written well enough for us to really believe her. Keane had over developed the story and left Mary Mallon as a blank cardboard cut out. The two just didn’t link correctly. Thank goodness it was a fast enough read and the style engaging enough, despite repetition of the word shit and grand. This is a clear case of an author using a real person to centralize and market her story but in fact the story isn’t really about Mary Mallon. Undoubtedly, the best part of the book is the second half. It comes together a lot better than the first half, however I’ve only given Fever two stars over on Goodreads because it doesn’t correspond to what is expected of it.
Mary Beth Keane was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award with her first novel, The Walking People. Fever, was best book of 2013 by NPR Books, Library Journal, and The San Francisco Chronicle. Keane was chosen as one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Program in 2011. “The 5 Under 35 program honors five young fiction writers selected by past National Book Award Winners and Finalists, or previous 5 Under 35 Honorees. The program has introduced the next generation of writers, including Téa Obreht, Karen Russell, and Justin Torres.” (nationalbook.org)
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