In 1900, life expectancy in America was just 45 years old, thanks to poorly constructed buildings, unsafe working conditions, and no antibiotics. In a world like this, it didn’t seem unusual to Mary Mallon, a cook and the main character in Mary Beth Keane’s second novel “Fever,” that a number of her New York City employers took ill.
“Disease and death didn’t follow her any more than they followed anyone else. People had been dying her whole life.”
And yet Dr. Soper, a civil engineer with some experience with Typhoid Fever, noticed Mary left a trail of illness wherever she cooked. “Fever” is based on the true story of Mary Mallon, the first asymptomatic carrier of Typhoid Fever, and the doctor who pursued and controversially quarantined her on North Brother Island.
Opening with an extensive section detailing Mary’s two-year quarantine, Keane provides a dearth of historical and scientific background. But we rarely see Mary in scene, which makes it difficult to sympathize with her. It is only later, when Mary’s quarantine is lifted and she returns to New York City — to her alcoholic lover and their crowded tenement building — that we begin to see Mary for who she really was: a strong-willed, hardworking woman.
Mary’s release, however, is conditional: She can never work as a cook again. Instead she is forced to work as a laundress because of “invisible microbes that floated in the air, that traveled up the nose and into the mouth….[it] sounded like a fairy tale meant for children, a little world too small for the human eye to see.”Witnessing Mary’s plight unfold against the exquisitely-drawn background of a dangerous, garbage-filled New York City, it finally becomes easy to connect with her, making it possible to understand the impossible: why Mary Mallon started cooking again.