Fever by Mary Beth Keane

The Blurb On The Back:

Mary Mallon, an Irish immigrant in New York at the turn of the twentieth century, has battled fiercely to better her lot in life.  She works her way up the ranks to cook for the wealthiest families in Manhattan, but leaves a trail of death and disease in her wake.  When she is accused of spreading typhoid and imprisoned in complete isolation on an island off Manhattan, despite being perfectly healthy herself, she refuses to understand her paradoxical situation.  Condemned by press and public alike, she is branded a murderer, but continues to fight for her freedom.   

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s 1907.  Mary Mallon is an Irish immigrant in New York who works as a cook for the city’s elite.  Highly regarded for her skills and in constant demand, it’s a shock when the newspapers report that she has been arrested on suspicion of transmitting typhoid to the families she works for.  Dr Soper, a sanitation engineer, has tracked her work records and believes that Mary’s a carrier (someone who transmits the bacteria but shows no signs of illness herself) and has her incarcerated on North Brother island, away from her lover, Alfred Briehof (an alcoholic and itinerant worker).  But Mary refuses to believe Soper’s claims: she’s cooked for hundreds of people and believes it’s only a coincidence that the families of some of those she’s worked for have got sick – after all, New York is teeming with sickness and disease so they could have got typhoid from anywhere …

Mary Beth Keane’s historical novel does a fascinating job of imagining the experience of Typhoid Mary, humanising her as a woman demonised in part for her perceived lack of morals and refusal to kowtow to those in authority but also her obstinacy in the face of reason and the lingering guilt she feels about it.  Keane does a good job at recreating turn of the century life for immigrant servants like Mary and it was particularly interesting to understand that her refusal to give up cooking lay in part because of the status and wages that the job gave her.  I also enjoyed the scenes from the weak Alfred’s point of view and especially his descent into opium addiction due to the lack of knowledge among doctors about the problem and then how knowledge and regulation left him unable to lawfully feed his habit but I thought that Keane was less successful at showing why Mary kept returning to Alfred, given his failure to stick to work as it seemed to boil down to history more than anything else and given how strong Mary is as a character, I didn’t believe she wouldn’t look elsewhere.  I also wished that more had been made of Soper, who Mary sees as a cruel and ambitious antagonist who delights in torturing her and I thought that the 1938 epilogue didn’t really add much given the 23 year time jump.  That said, I enjoyed this novel and would read Keane’s other work.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster for the review copy of this book.

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