Review: Fever by Mary Beth Keane

Description (from publisher):

‘A bold, mesmerizing novel about the woman known as “Typhoid Mary,” the first know healthy carrier of typhoid fever in the early twentieth century–by an award-winning writer chosen as one of ‘5 under 35’ by the National Book Foundation.
Mary Mallon was a courageous, headstrong Irish immigrant woman who bravely came to America alone, fought hard to climb up from the lowest rung of the domestic service ladder, and discovered in herself an uncanny, and coveted, talent for cooking. Working in the kitchens of the upper class, she left a trail of disease in her wake, until one enterprising and ruthless ‘medical engineer’ proposed the inconceivable notion of the ‘asymptomatic carrier’–and from them on Mary Mallon was a hunted woman.
In order to keep New York’s citizens safe from Mallon, the Department of Health sent her to North Brother Island where she was kept in isolation from 1907-1910. She was released under the condition that she never work as a cook again. Yet for Mary–spoiled by her status and income and genuinely passionate about cooking–most domestic and factory jobs were heinous. She defied the edict.
Bringing early twentieth-century New York alive–the neighborhoods, the bars, the park being carved out of upper Manhattan, the emerging skyscrapers, the boat traffic–Fever is as fiercely compelling as Typhoid Mary herself, an ambitious retelling of a forgotten life. In the hands of Mary Beth Keane, Mary Mallon becomes an extraordinarily dramatic, vexing, sympathetic, uncompromising, and unforgettable character.’

My thoughts:

I have a pet peeve. It is when historical fiction books do not end with a note on what is historically accurate and what the author took liberties with. It was the case with this book, but I will give it the benefit of the doubt because the copy that I had was an Advance Reader’s Copy and maybe the final printed version contains this information. Or at least, that is what I am hoping. I absolutely hate reading about someone interesting and then not knowing which is fiction and which is fact. I guess I could do my own research, but I like it when it is wrapped up and delivered to me at the end of the book. If anyone has read the final printed edition, please let me know if it contains this detail as I am just naturally curious.
Anyways, back to Mary Mallon and her plight. She was known as ‘Typhoid Mary,’ which in all honesty is actually a horrendous nickname. I can’t even imagine the fear she put into people who were already very cautious of disease and illness. She was a firebrand of a person though. Having immigrated to the United States from Ireland, and making a career of working for the upper classes of New York City as a domestic servant, beginning as a laundry woman and then finally reaching the envied status of cook. She was well known for her culinary skills and was considered a dime in a dozen. No one seems to think that it is odd that at almost every job she lands at, her employers and their families get sick and some die. No one questions the strange pattern of death that follows Mary as she travels from job to job, until Mr. Soper of the Department of Health figures out that Mary is at the root of the cause. He determines that she is a carrier of typhoid and passes it on unknowingly to the people she cooks for. She is then uprooted from her career and personal life and exiled to North Brother Island where she must live in quarantine for the safety and health of the general public.
I enjoyed this book to a certain extent. At times it seemed so over-dramatic and it really makes me wonder what was really the truth. I am sure the author took certain liberties to engage to reader, but it bothers me that there was nothing explaining the real Mary Mallon and what her life was like. In the book, Keane does a fantastic job of creating a life that seems plausible, but it was a little jumbled and a little confusing with all the back and forth going on. A good read if you’re interested in learning about the early medical discoveries of the twentieth century, but one that lacks a real sense of historical fiction. I’m glad to have read this book as I found it interesting, but not one that will really stand out.

Overall Rating: 3

Title:  Fever
Author:  Mary Beth Keane
Series:  N/A
Publisher:  Scribner
Publication Date:  March 12, 2013
Pages:  320
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Get It:  Amazon; Barnes & Noble

Disclaimer: This book was given to me by the publisher, through Edelweiss, in exchange for my honest review. I reviewed this book without compensation of any kind. All thoughts and opinions are solely mine.

One thought on “Review: Fever by Mary Beth Keane

  1. Good review – I got this at the library and made it about 100 pages in before stopping. The whole thing seemed repetitive. Mary sits on the island waiting for her trial, Mary remembers her boyfriend, Mary remembers a house where she worked as a cook, people around Mary get sick….From what I do remember the final published version does have a historical note. I just wish the fiction part had been more engaging.


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