Monday, November 19, 2012

Fever: A Novel by Mary Beth Keane

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: November 19, 2012 

Mary Mallon was a courageous, headstrong Irish immigrant woman who bravely came to America alone, fought hard to climb up from the lowest rung of the domestic service ladder, and discovered in herself an uncanny, and coveted, talent for cooking. Working in the kitchens of the upper class, she left a trail of disease in her wake, until one enterprising and ruthless “medical engineer” proposed the inconceivable notion of the “asymptomatic carrier”—and from then on Mary Mallon was a hunted woman. In order to keep New York’s citizens safe from Mallon, the Department of Health sent her to North Brother Island where she was kept in isolation from 1907-1910. She was released under the condition that she never work as a cook again. Yet for Mary—spoiled by her status and income and genuinely passionate about cooking—most domestic and factory jobs were heinous. She defied the edict. Bringing early twentieth-century New York alive—the neighborhoods, the bars, the park being carved out of upper Manhattan, the emerging skyscrapers, the boat traffic—Fever is as fiercely compelling as Typhoid Mary herself, an ambitious retelling of a forgotten life. In the hands of Mary Beth Keane, Mary Mallon becomes an extraordinarily dramatic, vexing, sympathetic, uncompromising, and unforgettable character.

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Illustration that appeared in 1909 in The New York American

It wasn't my intention to start in on New York history, but it appears I'm on a little bit of a kick. Between Ellen Horan's 31 Bond Street and now Mary Beth Keane's Fever, I am getting quite the education. The latter is of course the topic of this review and fair warning, I'm going to analyze content here so if that is going to bother you, abandon this review while you can. 

The Big Apple really comes alive under Keane's pen. Through Mary she illustrates the lives of the working class, the clamoring streets they walked every day and the crowded tenements in which they lived. She recreates the flawed and inequitable justice system and reveals the growing pains of a medical field still in its infancy. Its a rather refreshing change of pace considering the multitude of novels that focus on shady business deals or passionate affairs.   

Though I really appreciated Keane's re-imagining of turn of the century New York, I can't say the storytelling was entirely to my taste. Molly spends twenty-seven months a North Brother Island before going to her first hearing and not once in that period does she give thought to the theories that landed her in quarantine, the people who had died, or the doctors who were keeping her a virtual prisoner. She doesn't even wallow in loneliness, self-doubt or boredom. Nope. For twenty-seven months all she does is think of and exchange letters with Alfred. Pleasant "How are you? I'll be home soon." type letters. It isn't until chapter eight, nearly a third into the book, when Mary is listening to the court proceedings that the reader begins to get to know her and her story. All things considered I have to wonder at Keane's decision to illustrate Mary's initial stay at North Brother Island as she doesn't utilize it as a platform for character or plot development. From this reader's perspective the entire section is seemingly unnecessary. 

I admit that last bit sounds harsh and it comes off much more critical than I want it to, but at the end of the day it is how I feel. Please don't take my comments for more than they are. Keane really comes through in the latter two thirds of the book and I would hate to think my commentary steered anyone away from this title. The piece is a slow starter, I don't understand why the author went the route she did, it didn't exactly work for me, and that is all I am trying to say here.

Generally speaking I liked this book. Yes, I felt there was a hiccup, but beyond that I enjoyed what Keane did here. Typhoid Mary is a name many of us are familiar with, a name we associate with an infectious disease and death. Too often we overlook that she was born Mary Mallon; an immigrant who came to America looking for a start, a woman whose life and freedom were taken from her even as she realized her dreams. Keane understands this and through her work, fiction though it is, she has given this poor woman's memory a measure humanity.   

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They can't lock up everyone who carries the fever. The best alternative right now is to let you go on condition that you will never cook for hire again. You are no harm to anyone unless you are cooking. 
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Holly (2 Kids and Tired) said...

I really want to read this. I'm not sure how I never knew that "Typhoid Mary" was a real person. Seriously. Where was I all these years?!

Anonymous said...

It happens to the best of us Holly. :)