Fever by Mary Beth Keane (Scribner, publication March 12, 2013)
Fever is a richly imagined, sympathetic portrait of Mary Mallon, the Irish immigrant better known as Typhoid Mary.
Mary, who makes her living as a chef to fancy households in New York, is one of the first known carriers of typhus; she is immune, but can pass on the disease through her cooking. Eventually, a government “sanitation engineer” tracks her down, and she is essentially kidnapped and imprisoned. Three years later, she finally wins her freedom, but only by agreeing to give up her life’s work and passion: cooking.
Giving up cooking means not just giving up her livelihood, but admitting that the health officials were right: that she is a carrier, that she did – inadvertently – bring sickness and death to many families. It is a difficult truth to face. Mary acknowledges, “It was possible to live in such a way as to keep one’s back to the things that were not convenient….She’d taken a risk, but living was itself a risk, and more people agreed it was a risk worth taking.” And toward the end of the novel, Mary reflects: “[She] wondered whether it was possible for a person to know something and not know something at the same time. She wondered whether it was possible to know a truth, and then quickly un-know it, bricking up that portal of knowledge until every point of light was covered over.”
Most of the book is written in close third person from Mary’s perspective, which encourages the reader to sympathize with Mary. There are also a few sections with just Alfred, Mary’s longtime partner (but not husband), which explain his side of the story, but which probably aren’t entirely necessary.
Overall, Fever was a rich, engrossing, compelling novel. In fact, I so enjoyed it that I read two follow-up books: the short, nonfiction Typhoid Mary by Anthony Bourdain, and Keane’s earlier novel, The Walking People – both of which I recommend.
Thanks to Greg Mortimer at Scribner for a pre-pub copy of the book.