Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Review: Fever

Summary: Mary Beth Keane, named one of the 5 Under 35 by the National Book Foundation, has written a spectacularly bold and intriguing novel about the woman known as “Typhoid Mary,” the first person in America identified as a healthy carrier of Typhoid Fever. 

On the eve of the twentieth century, Mary Mallon emigrated from Ireland at age fifteen to make her way in New York City. Brave, headstrong, and dreaming of being a cook, she fought to climb up from the lowest rung of the domestic-service ladder. Canny and enterprising, she worked her way to the kitchen, and discovered in herself the true talent of a chef. Sought after by New York aristocracy, and with an independence rare for a woman of the time, she seemed to have achieved the life she’d aimed for when she arrived in Castle Garden. Then one determined “medical engineer” noticed that she left a trail of disease wherever she cooked, and identified her as an “asymptomatic carrier” of Typhoid Fever. With this seemingly preposterous theory, he made Mallon a hunted woman. 

The Department of Health sent Mallon to North Brother Island, where she was kept in isolation from 1907 to 1910, then released under the condition that she never work as a cook again. Yet for Mary—proud of her former status and passionate about cooking—the alternatives were abhorrent. She defied the edict. 

Bringing early-twentieth-century New York alive—the neighborhoods, the bars, the park carved out of upper Manhattan, the boat traffic, the mansions and sweatshops and emerging skyscrapers—Fever is an ambitious retelling of a forgotten life. In the imagination of Mary Beth Keane, Mary Mallon becomes a fiercely compelling, dramatic, vexing, sympathetic, uncompromising, and unforgettable heroine. -- Scribner

Most of us probably have heard the term "Typhoid Mary" used to describe someone who was spreading cooties, but how many of us know the story behind the woman who was branded this name? Truth be told, I had absolutely no idea that the term was even based on an actual person; and it wasn't until I read the description for FEVER by Mary Beth Keane that I realized there is a story behind the nickname. As a reader who loves historical fiction, I was immediately intrigued.

FEVER tells the story of Mary Mallon, an Irish immigrant who lived in New York City in the early 1900s. She aspired to be a cook and had worked her way up and gained respect in the kitchen. Her life was pretty much a success by her own terms until a "medical engineer" named George Soper identified Mary as an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever. She was sent to North Brother Island and isolated from 1907 to 1910. Mary fought tooth and nail against Soper's claim and she was eventually released under the condition that she never work as a cook again.

Mary tried to work as a laundress but she absolutely hated it. And eventually she worked her way back into the kitchen -- first in a bakery and later in a maternity hospital. Soper eventually tracked her down again and she was returned to North Brother Island for over twenty years.

I found FEVER to be absolutely riveting. Ms. Keane is an amazing writer and I loved how she brought Mary Mallon to life. I was extremely impressed with how well she mixed fact with fiction and it was apparent that she did a tremendous amount of research not only on Mary but also New York City in the early twentieth century. Her descriptions of the setting captured the essence of the time and place, but it was also how well she demonstrated the social conditions of the time that really impressed me.

FEVER is a fantastic example of what I love about historical fiction. It's an inherently intriguing story that the author embellished just enough to make it extremely special. However, I think what I appreciated the most about this novel is how it made me think and how I reacted to the story. On one hand, I found it extremely interesting that Mary Mallon was a victim in many ways. No one asks to be a carrier of a deadly disease, nor would anyone want to be removed from society to live in isolation. It seemed for quite awhile that Mary couldn't even grasp the concept that she was carrying a disease without showing symptoms. However, because of her actions, for much of the novel, I didn't like her and wasn't able to feel much sympathy towards her.

And that's because, Mary was also a really difficult woman. She was stubborn and prideful, and she absolutely refused to accept that there was any truth to Soper's claims. She blamed everyone else -- even accusing them of mistreatment because she was an immigrant and a woman. Furthermore, when she was eventually allowed to return to society, she didn't obey the rules set out for her by the Department of Health. She went right back into the kitchen even cooking for mothers and babies at a maternity hospital! While I might be able to accept that she didn't fully understand her actions in the early days, it became apparent that Mary did eventually understand, and yet she still continued to cook and put many innocent people at risk. It was fascinating to see how Mary lied to herself and others for years, and how mentally unstable she became as a result.

It wasn't until Mary realized while working at the maternity hospital that she was responsible for carrying the typhoid germ, and then it seemed that she was almost relieved to come to terms with it after all these years. It's even seemed like she felt remorse at this point. As a reader, I still wasn't sure I could forgive her and I knew I still didn't like her, but I loved how the author made the character so human and real. In fact, all of Mary's behavior (including her relationship with an addict) just fascinated me.

So it's no surprise that FEVER would make an excellent book club pick. There is a reading guide available with twelve questions along with some ideas to enhance your book club. Some of themes you might want to discuss include personal liberties versus public health concerns, addiction, class structure, prejudice, the role of media, dishonesty, and pride. Plus, Mary's actions are just so darn interesting in their own right.

Overall, I thought FEVER was a fascinating portrayal of Mary Mallon's life as well as early twentieth century life in New York City. Highly recommend for fans of historical fiction.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.


Beth F said...

I've always been fascinated with Typhoid Mary -- there have been a couple of books about her over the years (even Anthony Bourdain wrote one!) and I've read a few of them. I'll have to give this one a try.

bermudaonion said...

I think I'm beginning to like historical fiction more - maybe it was all the kings and queens who turned me off from the genre. This book sounds absolutely fascinating. Sure makes me glad for modern medicine!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I didn't know there was a real person! Sounds fascinating!

Karlie said...

How interesting! This sounds like a great historical fiction choice.

Karlie said...

How interesting! This sounds like a great historical fiction choice.

Jenn's Bookshelves said...

I've had my eye on this title for some time. Typhoid Mary has always fascinated me!

Literary Feline said...

What an interesting book! I hadn't realized there was a real person behind the name either. I will have to add this one to my wish list. Thanks for the great review!

Beth Hoffman said...

Though I typically don't read a lot of historical fiction, you've really grabbed my attention with this one!

Sandy Nawrot said...

Man she drew the short stick, didn't she? Can you even imagine? I don't know, I probably would have been a little difficult myself. Women and immigrants weren't treated all that well and I would have fought it. What an interesting spin on the story.