Fever – Mary Beth Keane

The day began with sour milk and got worse.”

Naturally, a novel about Mary Mallon, the cook accused of killing 50 plus people in and around New York City starts with a culinary nose wrinkle.

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Mary Mallon was the first known asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever, and we all know her by the venomous nickname Typhoid Mary. I appreciate Mary Beth Keane’s hypothesis for “Fever”. From the few known facts about Mary Mallon, she gives her view of the person behind the moniker. In her own words:

“I didn’t set out to portray her as either a villain or a victim, and I still believe I haven’t. (…) My main goal was to release her from that one-dimensional status.”

I believe Mary Beth Keane succeeded. Typhoid Mary of “Fever” is a strong immigrant woman – in some ways ahead of her time – struggling in the arms of a new and stronger health department and the first inkling of knowledge regarding infectious deceases. Through most of the novel (and apparently also her real life) Mary Mallon doesn’t believe that she is a carrier. She keeps her focus on the many, many people she has cooked for, who haven’t come down with the fever.

Albeit, being an asymptomatic carrier is the entirety of Mary. She is also a working woman living in a relationship with the periodically drunk Alfred, with whom she had been emotionally dependent since her late teens. “Fever” also covers this side of Mary. I find her evolution here most intriguing.

Reading “Fever” reminded me of the high school social studies teacher, who after I had written a couple of papers arguing pro and con and concluding somewhere along the middle, told me to pick a side and argue on its behalf. Even though I appreciate Mary Beth Keane’s middle road, I found myself wanting to give her the same advice.

Towards the end of the novel, the reader takes a trip with Alfred to Minnesota. The narrative changed and for a good many pages, you would think Alfred with the main character. To me, this section seemed a bit off. I understand why Alfred went; it was an excellent point in his character arch, but it didn’t figure into Mary’s story.

“Fever” was a slow read for me. I took me the first 100 pages before I felt in tune with Mary. Mary Beth Keane is however named one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 in 2011. The wannabe writer in me is always slightly jealous of published, young, female authors, but you can find out more about Mary Beth Keane.

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