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Read With Us: Fever Discussion

Hello and welcome to the first discussion post on the book Fever by Mary Beth Keane. Today I will be posing questions that concern the setting of the book, the writing style of Mary Beth Keane, and critique of the novel’s strengths and weaknesses. Next week Bonny will tackle the social issues the book addresses and then on February 18th Kym will go deep on the historical fiction basis of the novel.

Before we dive in, though, I have an extra special announcement to make about this month’s discussion posts. We have put together a “book lovers surprise package” to be given to one lucky Fever reader! How do you qualify?  Just leave a comment on any of our book discussion blog posts over the next 3 weeks.  Your name will be placed in a hat EACH time you make a comment — so the more you share, the more chances you have to win the prize.  The winner will be revealed as part of our wrap-up post on February 25. Cool, right?

Okay, let’s discuss Fever!

  1. The story is set in New York City in the early years of the 20th century. How does the city play a role in the novel? How does Keane do with describing the setting and making the reader feel like they are actually there . . . in the tenements, at the bakery, in the wealthy homes of the families Mary worked for? Does the setting contribute to the story in a meaningful way?
  2. How does the story reflect the attitudes and beliefs of the time in which it was written or set?
  3. What do you think of Keane’s writing style? Did it keep you engaged? Were you able to connect with the characters?
  4. Discuss how Keane handled incorporating factual information into this fictional account of Mary Mallon’s life. Do you enjoy historical fiction? And how would you compare this book to other historical fiction titles you have read and enjoyed?

Please discuss your thoughts regarding these questions in the comments. I will do my best to reply directly so that we can attempt a sort of discussion despite the limitations of this format. See you in the comments and remember – the more you comment, not just this week but also at Bonny’s and Kym’s in the subsequent weeks, the more chances you have to win our special prize!

This Post Has 31 Comments

  1. I just finished the book! I thought the weaving of NYC and immigration helped explain most people’s ideas about disease (it’s in the miasma!). I could understand why Mary was so confused about why she’d be a threat, particularly when not everyone got sick (like Alfred – how did he NOT get ill??).
    I did get a feel for boarding houses, laundries, but felt it was still lacking. I wasn’t a fan of the writing style – some ideas were belabored and others lacked more substance. I guess I connected with Mary and Alfred because I got exacerbated with Alfred and felt sorry for Mary.
    I do like historical fiction. I’ve read most of Philippa Gregory’s royalty books. I thought those books were better researched and written. Fever lacked enough facts for me; it seemed it was more fictional imaginings of conversations and actions of the characters. The only big reference was the Triangle factory fire but the author dealt with that well.

    1. I wondered why Albert never got ill, too! I think the setting brought it to life but I definitely struggled to connect with Mary and Alfred.

  2. *exasperated not exacerbated. Although the writing style may have exacerbated my exasperation.

  3. I was not a big fan of Keane’s writing style in Fever. I enjoyed her third book, Ask Again, Yes, but it was published 6 years after Fever, so she may have matured as an author during that time. I wasn’t able to connect with Mary Mallon so I didn’t understand her motivations and reasons for steadfastly refusing to take even the most basic steps to stop infecting people, which was why they eventually had to quarantine her against her will. Mary never seems to grasp the consequences of her actions, but Keane didn’t provide any reasons as to why she chose to think this way. And I will never understand Mary’s infatuation with Alfred!

    I wish Keane had better handled incorporating factual information into her fictional account of Mary Mallon. Typhoid fever is a life-threatening disease, and I think she could have done a much better job of explaining that, e.g. why authorities wanted to remove her gall bladder. I also wish Keane had included more information about George Soper. He had an extensive research background in typhoid fever and was not just a vindictive man hounding Mary. I don’t understand why the NY Dept. of Health chose to quarantine only Mary when there were many other asymptomatic carriers in the state, but part of that may have been Mary’s complete refusal to cooperate. The book would have been more interesting to me if Keane had chosen to focus on this as the first public health scare and how public health rules and regulations have evolved.

    I have a lot of criticisms of the book, but I also think it was a valuable read for me because it prompted me to research and learn more. Soper’s original medical publications are fascinating and I think that maybe Keane could have provided dual viewpoints between Mary and Soper, and this would have added much more to the story than including the odd romance with Alfred.

    1. I agree and didn’t really connect with Mary either. I think she did grasp the consequences but because those consequences weren’t personal (except for the little boy) she decided that her own needs were more important and she needed to work.

  4. 1. I think Keane does an okay job, but I am sure it was much grittier, dirtier than it felt in the book. I think she gives a good look into life – the crowding in the tenements, the lack of money in the working classes and the dichotomy between that life and the homes Mary worked in – at least on the surface. I am not sure the wealthy homes were any cleaner than the poor homes.

    2. I struggled with this one. I felt like there were some stereotypes that were a bit obnoxious – but perhaps because that was the belief at the time. But, it made me uncomfortable.

    3. I struggled to connect with the characters (and I found Keane’s writing in this book to be a struggle as well) I really struggled to finish this book. And, it was easy to put aside to read other things.

    4. I did not know Typhoid Mary was real until this book. But, I wonder if she was actually like she was portrayed in this book? Did she truly think there was nothing wrong? Was she really so belligerent and angry? The book left me with more questions, that is for sure.

    Thank you for hosting the first discussion! I really look forward to others thoughts and feelings about this book!

    1. I felt like she handled the setting well but I wonder if that isn’t partly because I’ve been to NYC and visited the Tenement Museum – that made it really easy for me to picture where Mary and Alfred lived and I may have been calling on that more than actually reflecting on it from Keane’s descriptions. I, too, struggled to connect with the characters. It wasn’t even that I disliked Mary, it was more that I couldn’t understand her motives.

  5. To Bonny:

    I did not get that whole Alfred/Mary relationship at all. AND, Keane never answered the burning (at least in my mind) question about what ever happened to Mary’s things from their shared room!

    I find it insane that she was treated as she was in her imprisonment. (yet, a male carrier – a dairy farmer – was allowed to stay at home with his family…) It just had so many unanswered questions for me!

    1. That was my biggest question — why was Mary treated so harshly when other asymptomatic carriers were allowed to remain at home? You can be sure these questions will come up next week when we talk about social issues!

  6. I enjoyed reading this book, though I agree with all the comments above. So many unanswered questions. And the relationship between Mary and Alfred – what??? That just did not make sense to me. I would like to know why Mary was quarantined and not other carriers. Was she really the way she was portrayed in the book (angry and sneaky?). Keane did a good job (for me) of depicting NYC at that time – the filth everywhere (!!), the crowds, poor working conditions (Triangle Factory fire, laundries).

    Looking forward to reading comments from others.

    1. I had a hard time accepting that Mary and Alfred weren’t more widely shunned for their living arrangement. I, too, thought Keane did a good job with the setting.

  7. Historical fiction is probably my favorite type of fiction these days. I read a lot of it. Its appeal to me is historical perspective in comparison to life today.

    I did not enjoy the writing style very much, and I thought she belabored the relationship with Alfred a bit. Having said that, I have to say that I think this was probably a difficult book to write. The written record of how people feel and behave has to be invented somewhat, so I don’t know how accurate this is in most historical fiction based on a known historical figure. No matter how hard an author tries, some of this must be invented based on impressions formed during research. Adding lots of factual information tangential to the subject does make a book look more accurate, but it usually makes for a very long novel, and I thought this book was long enough for the subject matter.

    I thought the descriptions of sanitation practices were accurate. Most people were totally ignorant (more so that today!) about sanitation and its relationship to public health. I also thought this was central to the story, and I thought the author did a good job of weaving that into the story. NYC was a teeming mass of people without any sanitation infrastructure. I always picture women in those long dresses dodging feces and other excrement while out walking, and it was an equal opportunity experience for everyone.

    The beliefs and attitudes of the times were key to the story. I thought the author did a good job of portraying the difficulties of being a working female at the time, class attitudes, widespread ignorance, and domestic issues. I will save my thoughts on that for Bonny’s discussion about social issues. I think they were so important to this book and continue to be important today. All of us make decisions in our life through our carefully curated lenses.

    1. YES. I’m with you on all of this, Becky. (although I’d rather not think about those long dresses and what they picked up while walking on the streets at that time)

  8. I believe the setting certainly contributed to the story – the way news traveled, the lack of knowledge regarding good hygiene, the living conditions – I felt that it was pretty well represented. I had a good sense for where Mary lived with Alfred and how things were in the tenement building.

    I listened to the book and was pretty much engaged. I was quite frustrated by Mary for many reasons. Her inability to acknowledge that she may actually be making people sick, her tolerance for Alfred’s shenanigans and her behavior toward the people on the island. She seemed unable to accept friendship of any sort. To me Keane represented Mary as a pretty bitter pill. If all of this was her mission she did a good job.

    I do enjoy historical fiction as it generally leads me to research events that have little or no knowledge of. So in that sense I certainly did learn something by reading this book. (The General Slocum, The Triangle Fire)

    1. I think in some ways Mary was pretty selfish. Because she never actually believed she was connected to causing illness she as able to compartmentalize it and just carry on with putting her own needs for making a living ahead of others.

  9. Unlike Bonny, I did understand Mary’s “motivations and reasons for steadfastly refusing to take even the most basic steps to stop infecting people.” I felt this in the descriptions of just how difficult it was to earn a decent living. Mary had a skill that allowed her to not only earn a living, but at something she actually enjoyed. It would be difficult to give that up based solely on trust of a stranger’s word, especially when there was so much evidence to the contrary, e.g. the number of people NOT infected. When you fervently wish something is not true, you grasp at everything that supposedly contradicts it. That said, the sporadic reminders of Mary’s “clenched first”-type temper were intrusive and (no pun intended) ham-fisted.

    And I agree with Bonny that the reader would have been better served by contrasting Mary’s story with Soper’s. Alfred did nothing to advance the story and should have been no more than an occasional presence to round out the description of her lifestyle and the isolation of those first years on the island. Soper’s side would have provided balance and relevant information.

    One of the more interesting parts of book probably went unread by most people: “Who Was Typhoid Mary?” was at the end of the Reading Group Guide in my Kindle edition. It’s an article that originally appeared on The Daily Beast website and in it Keane described her own ambivalence. “There were responsibilities attached to this project that I’d never had to deal with before. I had to honor the true story of Mary Mallon’s life while at the same time painting a vivid fictional world.”

    1. Dropping the narrative about Alfred and adding one about Soper would have made for a better book, I agree. I think Mary just saw what she wanted to see so that she could justify continuing to do work that paid better and that enjoyed – just as you said.

  10. I really felt that the setting — both the geographical location and the time period — were integral to the story. The spread of the disease had so much to do with personal hygiene (or the lack thereof), the close confines of people in the city, and the lack of understanding of how disease spread. I think if Mary had lived anywhere else, we likely wouldn’t know of her today. I also got the sense that Keane really wanted to give us an accurate picture of life at the time, especially the stark differences between the social classes.

    I didn’t love Keane’s writing but didn’t mind it either, and I was engaged for most of the book (I did lose my steam a bit about two-thirds of the way through). I think what gave me the most pause is that on the one hand the book is trying to present Mary Mallon’s story and perhaps give insight into her perspective. Perhaps that’s why Alfred gets introduced (though I agree with the others that the time spent on him when Mary was confined to the island really added nothing to the story). But the truth is that this isn’t a true biography, because Keane can only imagine what Mary thought about her situation and how much she understood about why she was being treated the way she was. At times I was able to sympathize with Mary, but then she’d do something that would make me mad; I really wasn’t sure if she was continuing to cook because she didn’t understand that she could spread the disease or if she did understand and was cooking in spite of it.

    It’s a shame that Mary didn’t write her own story during the time she was imprisoned. It would have been fascinating to hear her real thoughts and feelings!

    1. I think it was easy for Mary to ignore that her cooking was making people sick because she didn’t actually SEE the connection. It’s that old “you see what you want to see” thing. She did seem to have some guilt about the little boy but that was about it. There was something about Keane’s style in this book that made it hard for me to connect to the characters. I read Ask Again Yes, though, and didn’t have that problem at all so she’s definitely grown as a writer.

  11. While I think there are some problems with the book, I thought it was an interesting look at an issue that doesn’t get a lot of “play.” I appreciated the author’s handling of the setting throughout the book. I had a good feel for Mary’s apartments and boarding houses, her quarantine-cottage, the courtroom, her employers’ homes and bakery, and . . . New York City. (Also for Alfred’s time in Minnesota, but I’m going to ignore him for now.) (Like I wish Mary had. . . ) In fact, the descriptions of NYC at the time helped me understand how Mary may have been so confused(?)/throughtless(?)/annoyed(?) by the constraints placed upon her. The streets of NYC were . . . filthy, germ-ridden, and unsanitary. People didn’t understand (yet) the value of hygiene or the workings of “germs.” While I was frustrated with Mary’s cavalier attitude, I kept reminding myself that she really had no understanding of these (at the time) cutting-edge notions about disease and the transmission of germs. (And she was desperate to earn a living.)

    I agree with Sarah — I couldn’t tell if Mary continued to cook because she didn’t understand/believe what was happening, or if she did understand and kept cooking anyway. (I think that’s a failing of the author.) I, too, wish Mary had written her own story while she was forever-quarantined.

    1. I thought the setting was one of the best features of the book, I really felt like I was there in the tenements and boarding houses, on the streets of New York, etc. I do sort of think Mary knew that cooking was dangerous, she felt ashamed when they found her at the bakery, but I think her need to make money and have a job kept her from accepting the truth.

  12. I felt that Keane did a great job of describing the living conditions, sights, smells and lives of the working class in NYC at that time. Sometimes I felt like she went into too much detail and that it was way more drawn out than it needed to be (especially in the chapter relative to slaughtering the pig….since it was an audio book it was very difficult for me to try and skip over this part – and believe me, I wanted to). I think she makes the City feel like a giant jail, honestly. There’s no escape from the conditions or the way they have to live…when she ended up in the house where the room was just filled with beds, and they had to crawl over one another to get in and out, I could feel her despair. And it made her former life with Alfred in their small apartment seem seem like a fairy tale. I definitely feel the setting contributed to the story, because it was just a juxtaposition between the City and Brother Island….which one was the real prison? Some viewed her imprisonment on the island almost as a reward, because she was taken care of, lived in beautiful setting and had no worries about anything! Yet Mary yearned to go back to the City, which most people viewed as their own personal prison.

    I felt the attitudes and beliefs were accurate for that era….no one really had any clue about how germs worked, how disease spread, and it was all a time of experimentation (the horse bleeding….ugh). The attitudes of the upper/working class, where servants were the norm and looked down upon, but yet they actually were the ones who ran the house, especially Mary as the head cook. And how she seemed to lord it over those who weren’t as skilled or fortunate as she was – when she bought the hat and strolled around the market, she acted as if she were the lady of the manor. And then to be faced with the same hat on the head of her mistress, she just couldn’t resist throwing her little zinger out, even if she risked retaliation! And, later in her life, came to blame this incident for her whole incarceration.

    Keane’s writing style….I will admit I had to put the book aside many times because I just couldn’t continue, as I was incredibly depressed! But at the same time engrossed, it was a struggle. I could definitely connect with the characters. Alfred was just a waste of breath overall, and yet Mary couldn’t walk away from him….he was her “bad boy” obsession. And she always needed someone to take care of….without Alfred, she was a loose ends.

    This was my first historical fiction book, and I think Keane wove the story very well through actual historical events. Her description of the journey to America, her treatment when she landed, the fire where people were leaping to their deaths (horrifying), the development of medicine and the typhoid hospitals, Alfred’s trip out west, just gave color to a time that was probably challenging to live in, let alone survive!

    Overall I did enjoy the book, but felt it it was a little drawn out….I think some of it could have been much more succinct. It was as if she needed to meet her quota of pages, and she went above and beyond to make sure she met it!

    1. Oh man, I had forgotten about the pig! That was a little too much detail, I agree. I think Mary struggled with her place in society and the hat is a great example of that and Alfred . . . I feel like they would have been shunned more because of their living arrangements but Keane doesn’t really write it that way. Like some other readers have mentioned, less Alfred more Soper might have made for a more interesting conflict in the story. I have read Keane’s newest book Ask Again Yes and her writing has greatly improved. The story is vastly different than this one but it’s a really great book.

      1. And why oh why was the pig even part of the book?! Was it symbolic somehow of her struggle to break free of the old ways, but yet she couldn’t break free? I just couldn’t understand why it would even be included…..and all I could think of when she was slaughtering it was that she was doing to make all of the people sick who took the meat! This was a very specific instance of TOO MUCH DETAIL! lol

        1. I thought there’d be some follow up to people getting sick from the pig, too. But I guess because it was all cooked that killed all the germs.

  13. I first learned about Mary in and epidemiology class years ago. At time of the novel, the germ theory of disease transmission was still new and poorly understood, so the concept of an asymptomatic carrier was baffling to both medical professionals and even more so to lay people. I would have liked to have read more about Sloper’s investigation and the medical community instead of about Alfred ( was he fictional?)…it would have given more insight into the decisions made by public health officials and into Mary’s refusal to stop cooking.

    1. I think dropping Alfred’s narrative and picking up Soper’s would have made for a better story. Juxtaposing what Soper was doing with what Mary was doing would have created some tension that was sort of lacking.

  14. I do like historical fiction and it was very interesting to read about that time and how NYC was. The living conditions of so many people in one room/apartment would be hard to adjust to. I don’t know if I somehow missed it or read it too quickly but I really don’t understand how she passed it through cooking. I realize she is handling food but a lot of times, cooking (the heat of it) would kill certain bacteria. The relationship with Alfred did seem strange to me. I also think she was very stubborn but those in authority were also not as forthcoming (or maybe they should have taken more time to explain things to her) instead of just locking her up.

    1. The germs that Mary had were passed through food that she served that wasn’t cooked – one of her specialties was a fruit tart (I think) with raw peaches and that dish in particular was one that they attributed to making people sick.

  15. I had a really hard time with this book.
    1- I would of liked more science (of that time) regarding Typhus.
    2-Did not understand Mary and Alfred’s relationship
    3-Mary being confined and not other positive Typhus carriers, that happened to be men. I thought this had more to do with Mary being Irish. Irish were looked down on as being ‘dirty’ back in the day as well as for many other reasons.
    4- The book did not get my attention, half way through I started scanning pages till the end.

  16. I loved the descriptions of the city, and felt like I could actually see the muddy streets and hear the cacophony of sounds. Having been to the tenement museum in NYC, I think perhaps I drew from that experience as well, so it was easy to imagine how filthy everything was and how easily germs could spread. I had trouble connecting with Mary in the sense that she was such a strong personality in some areas of her life (finding jobs, learning to cook), but kept with Alfred and was so weak in that area – he was a drain on her both emotionally and financially but she remained loyal. I’m still not sure if Mary ever believed she was actually a carrier of the disease (and I also can’t imagine how Alfred never got ill), but I do feel that she felt badly about the little boy that died. I feel like she pushed those memories away in order to move forward and kept working because she didn’t feel like she had a choice. I wish they’d given more details of the actual investigation, and how they came to the conclusion that it was Mary – the testing they were doing, etc. That would have made the book so much more interesting for me. I also felt it was a bit disjointed, there could have been better connections between where/what Mary cooked and people getting ill. I don’t generally read much historical fiction, but have found myself more interested lately. I think Keane did a good job of representing the time period, and I felt immersed in NYC’s filth at times.

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