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Fever: A Novel Hardcover – March 12, 2013

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Editorial Reviews Review

Julia Glass on Fever by Mary Beth Keane

How I Almost Missed Out on a New Favorite Author

Mary Beth KeanerJulia Glass

Every so often, you’ll come across a book that burns so hot and bright it’ll sear a shadow on your vision. For a while afterwards, everything you look at will have the book’s imprint on it; your world will be colored in the book’s tones, and you will glimpse the book’s characters on the street and feel your heart knocking in your chest for a few blocks, as if you’d escaped a close call.

I did not deliberately choose to read Mary Beth Keane’s first novel, The Walking People. It came to me in a blizzard of books I read as one of three judges for a literary prize back in 2010. I took my responsibility seriously, even primly; one thing that worried me was how strongly my personal biases would influence my choices. (Was I supposed to be impartial? Of course not. But any passionately written book deserves enormous respect.)

So here is where I admit that I was barely a few pages into The Walking People when my heart sank. I recognized it as a story involving Irish immigrants to America. Just then, I happened to be weary of immigrant stories in general, nor did it help that I had recently, belatedly, read the incomparable Angela’s Ashes. And—second confession—I was raised by a mother with Scots-Presbyterian roots who had tainted my generally egalitarian self with her lifelong grudge against Irish Catholics. As I knew all too well, the most traumatic bullying she’d experienced as a child came from Catholic schoolmates—who taunted the Protestants as destined for hell because they couldn’t go to confession. But I digress.

I had vowed to read at least 50 pages of every book I was to judge, so I took The Walking People with me on an overnight trip I made alone, to give a talk. Perhaps the only way to keep my promise to this book would be to hold myself hostage to it in a hotel—with nothing for diversion but the bedside Bible and the cable listings. That night, I went to bed without reading, exhausted; in the morning, I decided to hang out with the dreaded book until 9:00 a.m. or so, just to avoid rush-hour traffic. Sighing, I opened it. When I next looked up at the clock, it was 11:15, past checkout time. I had lost not only my connection to real time but very nearly an extra night in hotel fees.

I drove home, stashed my suitcase, and plunged back into the book. Every so often I’d flip to the end and look at the author’s photo. How on earth did this fresh-faced young woman—from my middle-aged perspective, this girl—know so damn much about so many things? I’ll skip all the exquisite historic and cultural details of that novel. What Mary Beth Keane knows best, and most remarkably, is how the human heart grows, changes, and endures. She seems to know intimately every stage of life, from childhood through sexual awakening, through long marriages and parenthood, through working lives filled with compromise, through the mental dwindlings of old age.

Out of more than a hundred accompished books, I and my fellow judges named The Walking People one of the top five contenders for the PEN/Hemingway Prize. At the ceremony, I met Mary Beth, and I asked what her next act would be. Later, I paused to wonder: Wait. Did she really say, “A novel about Typhoid Mary”? (Okay, so maybe my hearing is starting to go. The room was awfully crowded.)

Last year, finally, I read Fever. And you might say I read it in a fever—the fever of emotional suspense that makes all the best books so essential. Does it involve Irish immigrants? Yes. Did I give a hoot? No. Mary Mallon is a show-stopping, strong-willed, heartbreaking heroine, and the New York in which she lived a hundred years ago comes stunningly alive as the backdrop for the story of her long and rich but star-crossed life.

Here’s something I know firsthand: second novels that follow prizewinning firsts are tough. They’re tough to write, tough to send out into the world. But Fever is even more ambitious, beguiling, and moving than The Walking People. Mary Beth has outdone herself. And now, of course, I have to find out what in the world she’ll conjure up next. This time I’ll trust my hearing. Already I can’t wait to read it.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* In this compelling historical novel, the infamous Typhoid Mary is given great depth and humanity by the gifted Keane (The Walking People, 2009). Irish immigrant Mary Mallon is eager to better her station in life and unafraid of hard work. When she is finally made a head cook, she is hired by some of the best families in Manhattan but unwittingly leaves a trail of disease in her wake. A “medical engineer” ultimately identifies her as a healthy carrier of typhoid fever and quarantines her on North Brother Island, where she is separated from her lifelong companion, Alfred Briehof, and forced to live in isolation. She is released three years later under the condition that she never cook again. But her inability to understand her condition, her passion for cooking, and the income she had become used to all conspire to lure her back into the kitchen. Keane not only makes of the headstrong Mary a sympathetic figure, she also brings the New York City of the early twentieth century to teeming life, sweeping readers into the crowded apartment buildings, filthy bars, and dangerous sweatshops of Upper Manhattan. Most movingly of all, she tells a great love story in depicting Mary and Alfred’s flawed but passionate relationship. A fascinating, often heartbreaking novel. --Joanne Wilkinson

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; First Edition edition (March 12, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1451693419
  • ISBN-13: 978-1451693416
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (297 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #638,366 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Mary Beth Keane is the author of The Walking People (2009) and Fever (2013), about the life of Typhoid Mary. She attended Barnard College and the University of Virginia, where she received an MFA in Fiction. In 2011, she was named one of the National Book Foundation's 5 under 35. She lives just outside New York City with her husband and their two sons.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 30 people found the following review helpful By M. Kersting on April 14, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
i've always been interest in the historical figure of Typhoid Mary. this book does an admirable job of mixing facts with the imagined emotional state of Mary, without being corny or melodramatic. It was also surprisingly a page turner; often novels based on history can turn dry and dull, and Keane avoids this by injecting her characters with some degree of likability.
It would have been nice to delve a little deeper into Mary's emotional state, especially how she really felt about infecting others with typhoid, but then again perhaps this is intentional, as Mary really doesn't want to believe she could really be the cause of death.
Very well written, nice to read something with such sensationalistic subject matter treated in a non-sensationalistic way.
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131 of 159 people found the following review helpful By Chris Reich on August 7, 2013
Format: Hardcover
This is indeed an interesting and well-written piece of fiction. However, even the most cursory dip into the available information on the real "Typhoid Mary" and you'll be shocked at how little of this book is based or even near the actual story. In fact, it's so far from Mary's story that I must drop stars because it pretends to be historical fiction.

Reading the other reviews really gave me a chill in that people believe they are reading history. The author borrowed a name and used a story as a backdrop to create a piece of fiction. It's disappointing. She could have called this Gonorrhea Sally and it would have been equally accurate.

So yes, the author can write an engaging story. It's a novel. But when a story is so far from reality I think it is inappropriate to use actual names. There is just too much distortion. The story would have been as good under a totally different name and then would not be guilty of gross manipulation of history.

By the way, the real story is better.

Read the book and enjoy it but don't think you're reading an historical novel. Even the language is wrong for the time.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Story Circle Book Reviews on April 19, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Ask Maria Callas not to sing.
Ask Anna Pavlova not to dance.
Ask Frida Kahlo not to paint.
Ask Mary Mallon not to cook.

Artists all, and all called to their work.

But wait, who is Mary Mallon? Why is she grouped with these famous artists? Mary Mallon was an artist, a kitchen artist devoted to her passion and willing to make sacrifices for it. Well known in her day, she is remembered, but not as Mary Mallon the cook or culinary wizard. No, she is known as Typhoid Mary, the spreader of disease and often death.

You can learn the basic facts of Mallon's life in just a few minutes via a computer or the reference aisle at the local library. However these few cold facts don't begin to tell the entire story. Mary Beth Keane's riveting novel, Fever, does.

Rudyard Kipling said that "if history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten," and readers of this story are not likely to forget Mary's history or that of the killer disease. Fever creates round and real characters.

Mary is a sympathetic character. Certainly not a heroine, not even when her condition is thoroughly explained to her, not even when she indicates she understands. Mary continually puts lives in danger by following her passion and supporting her one love. "Baking is not cooking," she explained after she'd been forbidden to cook for others but continued.

Equally vivid is Mary's nemesis Dr. George Soper, who was determined to ruin Mary's life while building his own reputation. In doing so he saved innumerable innocent lives, while destroying hers.
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25 of 30 people found the following review helpful By K. Schonlau on March 17, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
This novel is based upon the life of Mary Mallon, known to history as Typhoid Mary. I titled this review a love story as it's the story of a 2-fold love; Mary's love of cooking and her love of ne'er-do-well Alfred, her long-time companion.

Mary used her talents as a cook to raise herself up on the domestic service ladder even after she was discovered to be an "asymptomatic carrier" of typhoid. Since cooks were more highly regarded and better paid than other domestics, she time and again went back to the craft even after she was put into isolation in 1907 and banned from cooking for others.

Mary could not keep away from her lover Alfred anymore than she could keep away from cooking. Their relationship continued on even thru Alfred's betrayal.

"Fever" gives us strong descriptions of early 20th century life in New York, especially for the lower classes who were forced to toil in upper class homes or in sweat shops for subsistence wages.

This fictionalized account of Mary depicts her as a strong immigrant woman who battled for a better life for herself. This book would be suitable for book clubs or those who enjoy reading about early 20th century life in New York.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Luan Gaines HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 12, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Keane's novel fictionalizes the extraordinary life of Mary Mallon, an Irish immigrant who arrives in New York in 1884 and becomes a cook for a series of notable families. Only after the deaths of some of those family members is Mary informed that she is an asymptomatic carrier of Typhoid Fever. Labeled "Typhoid Mary" by the media, Mary is forcefully removed from her employment to an isolated cottage on North Brother Island in the East River, on the grounds of a hospital for patients suffering from tuberculosis. Citing public health concerns over Mary's civil rights, she is summarily separated from society, isolated in an environment where samples of her bodily fluids are collected daily for further study. The blatant disregard of civil liberties aside, the immediate threat to public health illustrates the conflict between the law and the Department of health's imperative to protect citizens from disease.

While Keane details the specifics of the case, it is her compassionate portrait of Mary that injects the novel with a perspective that might have gotten lost in the furor. Though her unique condition is explained to Mary scientifically, she never fully grasps the concept of herself as a carrier of death. It is this inner struggle, a combination of denial and rationalization, that allows Mary to perceive herself as victim of a zealous physician's personal vendetta, the unfairness of her situation chafing in lieu of acceptance of her situation. After years of scrambling for security in New York City, Mary's immigrant background influences her adaptation to a difficult new environment, survival crowding out any inclination to ponder appropriate choices over pragmatism, a chaotic romantic life with Alfred Briehof conditioning Mary to respond to instinct rather than logic.
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