A bold, mesmerizing novel about the woman known as "Typhoid Mary", the first known healthy carrier of typhoid fever in the early 20th 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 then 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 20th-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 asTyphoid 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.
©2013 Mary Beth Keane (P)2013 Simon & Schuster Audio
As William Gibson says, "The future is here, it's just not evenly distributed", and it's hard to think of another time and place in history when this doesn't seem more true than the turn of the 19th century.
Fever is not only a fascinating snapshot of the seismic demographic and technological shifts that took place during the late 19th and early 20th century, but is also a truly compelling--and at times almost heartbreakingly tragic--story about a woman who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time in history.
Because it becomes clear early on that "Typhoid Mary" was by no means the only one unwittingly spreading the typhoid bacteria around New York City and Long Island.
What made her so special was her profession as a private cook in a modern city, where it wasn't unusual for well-to-do families to hire their help as needed through reputable agencies, and where it wasn't unusual for a cook to work for a series of different employers over the years. And it also wasn't usual for an otherwise meticulous and starchy-clean servant to not make a point of washing her hands after using the bathroom or before preparing food.
Which seems so counter-intuitive today, but even though germ theory and the study of how bacteria and disease was spread were already well-developed fields among academics and scientists --I'm pretty sure Dr. Lister invented his antibacterial Listerine back around 1870? -- for some reason the whole concept of washing hands and sanitizing kitchens hadn't yet trickled down to the immigrant and working classes, even though they a were largely literate population. Like the future, such ideas were obviously not yet universally distributed.
Which was one of the reasons it was so so hard for Mary to believe it was anything but pure coincidence that so many she'd cooked for over the years got sick. Sure, people around her got fevers and some of them even died--where does that not happen? (In Ireland they called that Tuesday, ba dump bump) Throw in some all-too human defense mechanisms and guilt-borne denial (all brilliantly unfolded by the author) and you have a walking time bomb.
Which brings me to what I think made this book such a winner for me--the historical details alone would have been enough to keep me engaged, but Keane's character portrayal of Mary felt so authentic that I had to keep reminding myself this is historical fiction, not non-fiction. (Meticulously researched, no doubt--but much conjecture nonetheless.) Add to that the dramatic tension created by the two men in her life: the Javert-like Dr. Soper, and Alfred, the no-good bum she just can't stop lovin'--and it starts to read like a darned good screenplay.
I have to admit that I wasn't sure about the narrator at first; she started off a bit stiff and rote, with only a barely discernible Irish accent for Mary. But as Mary warmed and opened up to us, so did the passion in the narration. Whether this was a deliberate strategy or just a matter of Thaxton finding her rhythm I'm not sure, but either way it totally works.
Oh, and be forewarned: You'll probably be Googling throughout the book--for images of Mary and Dr. Soper, maps of the East River, the history of typhoid fever--just to name a few--so make sure you have access to an connected device before you start listening!
The story of Typhoid Mary haunts our collective memory, from the time before vaccinations, antibiotics, or any understanding of the microscopic world. This was an era when disease seemed to descend out of nowhere and the only treatments available were cold baths, cold clothes and fervent prayers. So, a healthy carrier - an infectious person with no signs of the illness themselves - became the stuff of nightmares.
Instead of taking the perspective of the victims, however, Fever is told from Mary Mallon's point of view. I admit, I was skeptical because I've known how terrifying it is to watch a child get sicker and sicker and the true impotence of doctors in the face of the unknown. But I got drawn into her story. I believed the voice taking me step by step through Mary's decisions, even after she should have known better...
I'm wondering if the line between historical and fiction is getting too blurry, because I had to keep reminding myself this was fiction. But that's my only caveat. Recommend.
The first half of this novel moved back and forth in time. It covers the time Typhoid Mary is accused of spreading typhoid, including her lengthy forced quarantine and trial. More than half the book is a series of flashbacks about Mary's earlier life as an Irish immigrant, making it as a cook in America. These flashbacks seem random, sometimes going further back and sometimes later. This prevented me from entering the flow of this historical novel. The second half of the novel moves ahead linearly from the trial onward, and was much better. Mary's long term relationship with Alfred, a neer-do-well charismaic man, was one of the best parts of the book. Mary is not especially likeable, but she is an interesting and believable character. This book did a great job at capturing life for a single woman in NYC in the early 20th century, While this is a mixed review, I am glad I read this 3.5 star book. And I do find myself thinking a lot about the book when I am not reading.
I loved this book. I very rarely give 5 stars, but I can't think of 1 reason not to give this book all 5. I had to keep reminding myself that it was a work of fiction, but I don't see that as a mark against it. I was immediately drawn in. I was transported as if I were walking down the dirty streets of New York alongside Mary. I could almost smell and taste the dishes she cooked. Candace Thaxton did an excellent job narrating, jumping back and forth between Irish, German and other accents. I simply cannot say enough good things about this book! It's my favorite book I've listened to in a long time and I know I will be listening to it again, as well as recommending it to others!
The historical points of this topic (typhoid fever) interests me both as a nurse and as a person. But there was little history here. The fiction part was barely of interest. I can only imagine the horror of a young immigrant girl being accused of causing death wherever she went. And then to be quarantined for years with no legal recourse!! How frightening and frustrating! But the author chooses to dwell on Alfred at length ...why? Narration was excellent.
Rating scale: 5=Loved it, 4=Liked it, 3=Ok, 2=Disappointed, 1=Hated it. I look for well developed characters, compelling stories.
I agree with a previous reviewer who stated some difficulty remembering that this is a work of fiction because of the strength of the historical perspective. As long as Keane stuck with the Typhoid Mary story line, I found it riveting, and really appreciated how she was able to provide balance to the myth of an evil one-woman epidemic serving up a petrie dish of typhoid with all of her cooking. It was clear that in spite of all the warnings, she just did not believe that she could be the culprit in making so many people sick. Filth in the streets was so rampant, that typhoid was not the rare occurrence that it is today - no wonder Mary assumed the source had to be found elsewhere. The ethical dilema of personal rights and freedom vs the protection of the public's health is heartbreaking. Unfortunately Mary became her own worst enemy through her stubborness and bad temper.
Props for the excellent descriptive narrative making turn of the century New York real - the huge disparities in living conditions and in the insights into the medical science of the day. (Another reviewer has already eloquently stated the lack of trickle-down of the germ theory to the common man). Also props to Candace Thaxton's excellent narration, especially the subtle changes in accent when Mary was thinking or speaking.
Where Keane lost her way for a time was by over emphasizing the Alfred story line. Apparently one of the fictional aspects of the larger story, I found the long passages that focused on his substance abuse and journey to the midwest to be largely uninteresting and sadly stalled the forward movement of the real story, leaving Mary out altogether for very long stretches. I would have preferred more history and less fiction on that score. Minus one star for that lapse in literay judgement and lack of editing.
Easily entertained and amused.
The author did a remarkable job of fairly presenting all sides of the story without inserting judgment. It was well read with careful attention to the accents and inflections that defined each individual character. A good lesson in history, understanding the limitations of medical science in that time, and appreciating the blessings of medical science, today.
Fever is a terrific historical & literary novel. Don't miss it! Ms. Thaxton's performance is a notable. She channeled Mary's vulnerability & obtuseness extremely well.
I don't know which was more mesmerizing, Mary Mallon's perceptions of her own life as woven by Mary Beth Keane, or Candace Thaxton's lovely and insightful narration. Vivid historical detail helps the reader enter Mary's life as a working class immigrant with no financial or social safety net, burdened by a public accusation she did not understand or accept. A grim and troubling portrait of the times and one courageous but flawed woman.
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