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Growing pains: Novel traces outbreak through group of teenage girls

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The Fever is a teenage coming-of-age story crossed with a Dr. House-style social-medical mystery. The plot is told by turns through the eyes of Deenie Nash, a teenager, and two members of her family: her father Tom, a popular high-school science teacher; and Eli, her hockey-star older brother.

But the story belongs to and revolves around Deenie, whose circle of friends is struck by an epidemic of seizures and hallucinations.

Panic, secrets and tempers swell as the town tries to understand the cause of the outbreak among its teenage girls: Pollution? Vaccination? Drugs? Hysteria?

Abbott, an Edgar Award-winning author of six previous novels, is perhaps best-known for her hard-boiled neo-noir heroines. Her work in this decade leaves the mid-century ladies behind, instead exploring the raw heart of modern female adolescence while maintaining the tight but lyrical prose of her older books.

She easily draws the reader into Dryden High, set on an eponymous dead lake in an unnamed northern U.S. state: "The teachers... were either spring-loaded, grasping their dry-erase markers like emergency flares or slouched against doorways, filled with louche contempt."

Abbott has a stunning imagination for (or recall of) the confusion, longing, terror and bravado of teendom. She evokes well the desire to fit in, to be like everyone else and also to become someone different, someone better: "You spend a long time waiting for life to start -- the past year or two filled with all these firsts, everything new and terrifying and significant -- and then it does start and you realize it isn't what you'd expected, or asked for."

The theme of firsts surges through the book; the teens hunger for new experiences, but not to be the one who does a new thing first -- and not the one to do it last, either. "Sometimes it seemed to Deenie that high school was like a long game of And Then There Were None. Every Monday, another girl's debut."

The feeling extends even to the illness cutting them down: "'Did you hear?... You're all going down.' The boy laughed, beats thrumming through the open mouths of his headphones. 'One by one.'"

Abbott's descriptions of daily life are clearly contemporary -- girls' faces lit by phone screens, sharing information from CNN soundbites and publishing YouTube videos -- but her modern references don't come across as contrived or dated. Rather, they lend credibility to her story; even readers who don't personally know a teenager will recognize this world as true.

Though it focuses on the secretive inner world of its teenage characters, The Fever is not written for a young-adult audience. It also tackles Tom's struggle to come to terms with every parent's ultimate inability to protect their children from the dangers of the world. The outbreak provides a tangible villain for many of the parents; it's something they can grasp, fight, hope to eradicate, unlike the inevitable troubles and pains that await their children in the future, which they cannot control.

"All we do from the minute they're born is put them at risk," says one mother, aggrieved to conclude the contagion could have come from the ground, the walls, the lake, vaccines, food, water, air... anywhere. "The hazards never stop."

The book also has the pull of a mystery, sweeping the reader along until the very last pages. Though the whodunit (or whatdunit) takes a back seat at times to coming-of-age revelations, it is solvable by readers who follow the breadcrumbs. Whether or not the reader solves the puzzle before the reveal, the novel provides a satisfying a-ha moment in a chilling and poetic medical mnemonic.

Abbott has a decade's experience combining taut mystery writing with independent-minded, three-dimensional female protagonists. The Fever is no exception to her canon. It provides a gripping window into the minds and hearts of modern teenage girls.

 

Wendy Sawatzky is associate editor, digital news for winnipegfreepress.com and commander-in-chief at wendysawatzky.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 28, 2014 G6

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Updated on Saturday, June 28, 2014 at 7:56 AM CDT: Formatting.

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