Mary Beth Keane, named one of the 5 Under 35 by the National Book Foundation, has written a spectacularly bold and intriguing novel about the woman known as “Typhoid Mary,” the first person in America identified as a healthy carrier of Typhoid Fever.
On the eve of the twentieth century, Mary Mallon emigrated from Ireland at age fifteen to make her way in New York City. Brave, headstrong, and dreaming of being a cook, she fought to climb up from the lowest rung of the domestic-service ladder. Canny and enterprising, she worked her way to the kitchen, and discovered in herself the true talent of a chef. Sought after by New York aristocracy, and with an independence rare for a woman of the time, she seemed to have achieved the life she’d aimed for when she arrived in Castle Garden. Then one determined “medical engineer” noticed that she left a trail of disease wherever she cooked, and identified her as an “asymptomatic carrier” of Typhoid Fever. With this seemingly preposterous theory, he made Mallon a hunted woman.
The Department of Health sent Mallon to North Brother Island, where she was kept in isolation from 1907 to 1910, then released under the condition that she never work as a cook again. Yet for Mary—proud of her former status and passionate about cooking—the alternatives were abhorrent. She defied the edict.
Bringing early-twentieth-century New York alive—the neighborhoods, the bars, the park carved out of upper Manhattan, the boat traffic, the mansions and sweatshops and emerging skyscrapers—Fever is an ambitious retelling of a forgotten life. In the imagination of Mary Beth Keane, Mary Mallon becomes a fiercely compelling, dramatic, vexing, sympathetic, uncompromising, and unforgettable heroine.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
Few women are as infamous as Mary Mallon, aka Typhoid Mary, an Irish cook and asymptomatic carrier who managed to spread a deadly disease in virtually every place she worked. Historical novelist Mary Beth Keane digs deeper, past the sensationalist details of Mary’s story, to explore the life of a stubborn, intelligent, and sympathetic woman. Fever paints a historically accurate, emotionally nuanced picture of life in the cramped, unsanitary, and racist world of turn-of-the-century New York—and adds beauty and complexity to one of America’s strangest tales.
Keane (The Walking People) rescues Typhoid Mary from her cautionary tale status by telling her true story. Apprehended by the New York Department of Health in 1907, following the deaths of the family for whom she cooks, Mary Mallon is turned into a guinea pig on an East River island with little to comfort her aside from rare letters from her lover Alfred. Slowly she builds a case to win her freedom and returns to a changed New York of Chinese laundries, tenement fires, and Alfred, now-destitute. Dogged by her reputation as a tainted woman, Mary defies the virus she carries by doing what she does best, even as her nemesis the medical sleuth Dr. Soper (the novel s most engaging figure) hounds her from kitchen to kitchen. There s a tremendous amount of retrospection and research circling the myth, but Keane, by staying so close to Mary, occasionally loses sight of what might have been a more lucrative subject: the birth of the health scare. Typhoid is frequently treated as though it s little more than a metaphor for difference or estrangement, and we don t entirely understand why Mary never seems to grasp the consequences of her actions. Still, as historical fiction, Fever seldom disappoints in capturing the squalid new world where love exists in a battlefield both biological and epochal.
Customer ReviewsSee All
Very interesting historical fiction. Made me want to goggle the life of Mary Mallon. I would definitely recommend this book!
Loved this. A great read, but an even more moving story of this poor woman's life. It's been weeks since I read it and yet I'm still haunted by scenes from it.
Perfect combo of depth and intrigue
I love historic novels and this is easily one of the best I've read.
In many ways it's a page turning mystery thriller - but not at all in the typical sense. It's a ride through time, but goes deeper into the personal habits, daily routines and the inner psyche than most historic novels - not in a sinister way which is more common for this genre, but in a way that's sympathetic to the people swept up in circumstances of the day.
It's told in a deeply familiar, personal, strong inner voice about a woman - but really it feels more like by a woman - at a time and place that's all vividly brought to life.
And clearly it's written by a woman. It's refreshing to read a historic novel written by a woman - you sense a deeper level of detail, nuance and perspective that you don't often experience in a genre that tends to be so male oriented. The level of detail is on par with Killer Angels the extraordinary novel about the battle of Gettysburg.
From the epilogue that's taken from the real Mary's journals you get the sense that it is truly Mary's voice and tone and experience that fills the entire book.
It's also wonderful how the events in the book intersects with other books I've loved: New York the novel, the Alienist, Close to Shore, among others that I highly recommend.