In high school, I spent my lunches at the dweeb table, and I always wondered what it was like to be one of the cool kids. So, to my amusement, reading Megan Abbott’s novel The Fever provided a peek into the souls of the coolest kids at a high school in small-town USA. As several reviewers have noted, Abbott is worth reading for her insight into the teenage mind alone. An Edgar Award winner, she has a PhD in literature from New York university, and she has published seven previous novels.
For fans of psychological suspense and mystery, The Fever doesn’t disappoint. But it’s not “just” a crime novel, for two reasons. First, it has achieved a marriage of the mystery pattern with the psychological novel: a combination of “whodunit,” “what the heck’s going on with this person,” and “will she do it?”
Second, The Fever explorers teenage yearnings and troubles, but it ain’t no YA novel. Instead, the dark blooming of sexuality and social competition—think “frenemy”—echoes through the story. I was surprised, even shocked, that the brightest, most popular girls might be hiding their own unrequited crushes and emotional confusion; blocking fresh memories to avoid the truth of their sexual escapades; feeling bewildered by their own acts of revenge upon rivals.
My one quibble is that the book could have been shorter, or else the pacing better handled. To my taste, the story dragged for a couple of chapters around the two-thirds mark.
Beyond her strength at characterisation, Abbott’s style is unobtrusively poetic, as in this description of a winter day: “Outside, it was bitter cold, the sky onion white”; or in this passage, describing an outdoor skating rink: “branches strewn across the thawing ice. Prickly globes split, seeds spilling, white petals pulped, spores that spilt red onto the ice.”
The spores in the quotation above relate to this novel’s theme—fever. Abbott explores two senses of the word: the “fever” of teenage hormones and the actual fevers that toxins infect humans with via polluted water. There’s actually a third of treatment of “fever” in the story, but revealing it here would be a plot spoiler.
Whether or not you were a nerd in high school, read The Fever for a its fresh hybrid of mystery and psychological suspense; its poetry; its thematic depth; and its frank, searing look into the pain of adolescence.