Fever: A Novel
by Mary Beth Keane
I read this book a couple of months ago, but didn’t really know how to begin a review because of a strange thing that happened— I finished without highlighting a single word of it. Usually there are passages or turns of phrase I know I’ll want to remember and come back to. Not this time.
Not one pencil mark in the margin. Not one dog-eared page.
I’ve been pondering that question for two months. It’s not because the book wasn’t well-written. It was. And it’s not because the story itself wasn’t compelling, because it definitely was. (Obviously— it’s still on my mind!)
Maybe it’s because I like poetry and have a tendency to highlight what some might consider purple prose. Maybe I was waiting for a resolution or epiphany, or a statement of summary that just never came. Or maybe Keane’s straightforward style simply didn’t need any embellishment. Adorning the narrative with a profusion of flowery description would have felt as garish as slapping a plastic lei on a striking woman in an elegant evening gown.
Whatever the reason, this historical fictionalization of Mary Mallon, immigrant cook to wealthy New York families and asymptomatic carrier of the deadly Typhoid Fever, was undoubtedly a well told tale.
Mary, who was unfairly quarantined for years on isolated North Brother Island while authorities tried to figure out what to do with her, is a woman we can sympathize with. When she was finally released back into society, she was forbidden to cook again. But her need to earn a living, coupled with her passion for cooking, proved too great a combination of necessity and temptation.
After Mary quit her job at a laundry in March 1911, at the time of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (a true-to-life detail which dovetailed nicely with Mary’s story as it highlighted the poor wages and unsafe working conditions for the lower classes in all of New York at the time), she asked her friend, Mila:
“Do you think baking counts as cooking? Or is it a separate category?”
Mila considered the question very seriously.
“Baking is a different thing. And anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know about either one.”
Mary returned to cooking – “baking” – under a false name.
Not a hero in the truest sense, Mary was nonetheless an interesting protagonist— a take-charge woman who subscribed to the “do something, even if it’s wrong” philosophy. She attempted to take control of her situation and make things happen, refusing to stay down or take no for an answer. As a modern reader I wanted her to be even stronger, but she was pretty bold in a time and society where that kind of behavior was considered inappropriate for women.
A very unusual choice to tell her story. Who would have thought to write a novel about Typhoid Mary? Keane deserves a lot of credit for brilliantly bringing the life and trials of Mary Mallon to the page.