The Fever by Megan Abbott (2014)

You spend a long time waiting for life to start — her past year or two filled with all these firsts, everything new and terrifying and significant — and then when it does start you realize it isn’t what you’d expected or asked for.”

In this dark and atmospheric novel, Megan Abbott turns an icy, gray, windswept small town into a dangerous, sinister place where young girls are falling victim to an unexplainable and possibly fatal illness. It was a town “where nothing every happened, until it did.” From the moment a young girl collapses with a seizure in class, the high-school she attends, and the town the school is in, are a buzz with rumors and theories on her illness…but none come close to the horrible truth.

While at first the possibilities put forth for the illness remained modest — stress, dieting, boy troubles — when a second girl becomes sick, the community begins floating wild and than wilder ideas. The parents are desperate for concrete answers and, when doctors are unable to provide them, they take aim at all possible targets: contaminated HPV vaccines; chemicals in the water from nearby fracking; toxic sludge in the town lake. The parents didn’t necessary “want the truth, [they] just wanted an answer.”

The teens themselves, phones never far from their hands, are constantly texting and re-texting their own theories — toxic shock syndrome, STD’s, birth control pills, many more most related to sex — creating an undercurrent through the whole book of phones constantly “jangling” and buzzing with news and accusations. “Everyone knew things so fast, phones like constant pulse under the skin.”

Tensions continue to rise between the adults and their peers, fighting over possible causes; between the teens and their parents; and between the teens at school, due in part to the social status and popularity that attaches itself to whomever has the most current and plausible information on the contagion. The status afforded to the sick girls also leads to a Salem Witch Trial affect with girl after girl showing signs of illness. Town officials must cull the truly ill from the pretenders, which causes untold complications. Soon it seems half the town is at risk and the other half are to blame. The theatrics, however, have not brought anyone closer to the truth.

Enter our main character Deenie, whose two best friends are the first to fall ill. Deenie must work through her own demons and address her own risky behaviors in order to puzzle out whether she holds the key to the sickness…all the while she must constantly monitor herself for signs that she too is succumbing.

“When you thought about your body, about how much of it you couldn’t even see, it was no wonder it could all go wrong.”

The truly scary aspect of the novel, in addition to the the illness that is plaguing the teenage girls, is the terrifying (at least to me, the mother of a teenager) discordance between the adults — what they think their children are doing, who they believe their teens to be — and the lives their kids are actually living. Existing in a secret world of smart-phones and chat rooms, under the noses of distracted and absent parents, the kids are involved of very adult relationships and taking part in very serious activities, often with far-reaching consequences.

Despite what the parents in The Fever believe, neither the hyper-vigilant helicopter parents nor the relaxed “I trust you” parents, exert more than a cursory influence over their children. The adults in the novel underestimate the intensity of the experiences their children are having: it is far easier to downplay their concerns or claim that youth is the reason for their volatility. In reality, the boys and girls in the novel are all deeply affected by ambition, rage, jealousy, sexual tension and are hugely motivated — in their quest to be grown — to take risks their parents cannot fathom. Deenie wonders, “Bad things happen and then they’re over, but where do they go? Are they ours forever, leeching under our skin?”

A haunting and thought-provoking novel, to be sure, with a wonderful grasp of the pitfalls that both teens and their parents face.

the fever cover

“October Series” books are spooky, scary, or otherwise unsettling books that I read each year during October, a truly perfect month for contemplating dark endings…and of course, for celebrating Halloween.


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