It started with Lise, rocking in her desk, falling to the floor, and frothing at the mouth. Then it’s Lise’s friend Gabby, then another girl, and another. All falling suddenly ill. What could be causing it? Is it the water? Is it the semi-mandatory HPV vaccine? How is it spreading? And how can it be stopped?
Megan Abbott tells the story of this sudden contagion in a seemingly ordinary American suburb by tracing the reactions of the three members of the Nash family: Deenie, friend of the sick girls; Eli, her older brother; and Tom, her father and a teacher at the high school. All three are bewildered by what is happening, particularly Deenie, who wonders why she’s so far immune and whether that will remain the case.
This is an entertaining novel about contemporary anxieties, and as such it touches on lots of issues, from parental fears about vaccines to dangers of pollution to the hazards of social media. But those weren’t the aspects of the book that interested me most. The beats in these areas were generally predictable, with people choosing their pet danger to fret about, with little regard for facts. For example, even though it’s known that one of the girls didn’t get the HPV vaccine, those opposed to the vaccine are determined to see it as a culprit. All of this seems likely enough, but that sort of social commentary is not enough to make me care about a story. The more compelling aspects of the book come from the timeless pieces of the plot, that of girls growing up.
The story is pretty evenly distributed between Tom, Eli, and Deenie’s perspectives, but Deenie’s story is the emotional core of the novel. Eli’s perspective had potential, but it never quite delivers—in general, Eli and Tom’s stories seem to be there mostly to allow us to see events Deenie couldn’t. Deenie, like any teenage girl, is in the midst of figuring herself out. She and her friends are discovering sex and are trying to understand these new feelings and what they mean. And they’re also navigating the tricky world of teenage friendships. Deenie has a friend group that seems tight-knit, but there are subgroups within the group, and some of the girls seem cooler than others. These friendship hierarchies are central to the way the story operates. The story spreads through these friendships, as the girls text each other the latest news and post videos telling their own stories online.
The online documentation of the fever’s spread takes the story beyond Deenie’s friends and their families and brings it into the public square. It turns what could be a small story into a big one as views of the students’ videos of the girls’ seizures go up and up. Without delving too far into spoiler territory, I think I can safely say that this element turns what would have been an isolated incident, among a small circle in a quiet community into a headline-grabber. We’ve seen many times in recent years how much good the Internet can do at raising awareness of important stories that wouldn’t get told otherwise, but there are also times that stories don’t need to be told, when the telling is the danger. The challenge is knowing when to spread the word and when to keep it quiet. This is a fascinating piece of the story that I wish had been explored in greater depth.
My chief disappointment with this book, which I did enjoy well enough for a day’s reading, was in its resolution. The female friendships are so important to the book, and the answer to what is happening relies on such a tired old trope that I was frustrated to see it here. Yet even as I say that, I can recall scenarios from my own high school days involving similar rivalries. It’s a trope with some truth behind it perhaps, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be glad to see it die. Maybe in another generation or two, after years of absence, this kind of story can be told afresh without the girl-bashing baggage attached to it.