Your summer reading, part two: Megan Abbott's The Fever

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  • Hachette Book Group
I recommend Megan Abbott's new novel, The Fever, as ideal summer reading with a caveat: it will not last you through the summer. It probably won't even last you through a week-long vacation. If you are susceptible to cliff-hanger chapter-endings (and who isn't?), you will probably blow through it in 24 hours. Several of those hours are hours you should have spent sleeping if you want to be happy and alert at work the next day. But you will probably agree the trade-off is totally worth it.

The premise of The Fever is stripped from the headlines Law and Order-style. As happened a few years ago in LeRoy, a town in upstate New York, and before that, 300 years ago in Salem, Massachusetts, the teenage girls in Dryden, the cloudiest town in its unnamed state, are behaving oddly: an epidemic of unexplained seizures has been sweeping through the high school, starting during a quiz in math class, escalating during an assembly, perpetuated through endless texting and homemade YouTube videos. Speculation ranges from the chemical (the mandatory pelvic inflammatory disease vaccine, a polluted lake outside of town where some of the girls recently went swimming) to the supernatural (the weird new girl Skye is into witchcraft) to the psychological (SEX!).

Abbott, the author of six previous thrillers, has serious chops. Her three main characters—sophomore Deenie Nash, whose two best friends were the first girls to succumb to this weird epidemic; her older brother Eli, who just wants to be left alone to play hockey; and their father, Tom, a chemistry teacher at the high school—are all hiding secrets, both from the rest of the world and from themselves. Most of their revelations are both surprising and plausible, a very neat trick. Abbott also knows how to build an atmosphere of foreboding, with her descriptions of a cold, sunless northern town in midwinter, and the recurring image of a girl in the middle of a fit: "But looking down at Lise, lips stretched wide, Deenie thought, for one second, that she saw something hanging inside Lise's mouth, something black, like a bat flapping."

But maybe Abbott's best trick is getting inside the minds of her teenage girl characters without condescending to them. The sections from Deenie's point of view are by far the best, the ones that will stick with you. Abbott remembers and describes—vividly—the simultaneous curiosity about sex, and the terror that once you have it, it will change you forever, and maybe not in a good way. You could get pregnant. Like Deenie's coworker at a pizza place at the mall, who becomes "a dramatic cautionary tale," you could get gonorrhea. Your boyfriend can break up with you while you're still putting your jeans back on afterward.

"Later, the brief reign of Gabby and Tyler—had it really only lasted a month?—became a sign to Deenie that there were entire dark corridors too awful to ponder. . . . Sexual debut. Sometimes it seemed to Deenie that high school was like a long game of And Then There Were None. Every Monday, another girl's debut."

Abbott understands that it's not just the seizures that are terrifying. It's the entire experience of being a teenage girl.

Aimee Levitt writes about books on Fridays.

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