Lately it seems the world is conspiring to make me remember random stuff from high school that I thought I’d forgotten. Like, a few days ago Jake had to write an essay about Hawthorne’s short story “The Minister’s Black Veil.” I hadn’t read that since high school—it must’ve been in tenth grade, as they hadn’t switched American lit to eleventh then. Talking to him about the story evoked a memory of myself sitting at the computer in our musty basement (our 8088 with, of course, the DOS version of WordPerfect and two 5.25 floppy drives) trying to write about how the veil was a symbol of the minister illustrating Christ’s selfless love. (Maybe my first time with really struggling to write something, and then finally getting it right.) (Also, you have to imagine that I was white-blond and wearing black clothes and an anhk necklace and probably fuming at my mom all through the writing.)
Earlier discussions with Jake have left me dreaming, literally dreaming, about old boyfriends. I’ve had a long discussion with my sister over this question: Is it harder to be the teenager or the mom to a teenager? (We think it’s just hard in different ways.)
I got reacquainted with one my gymnastics teammates from my teenage years.
I haven’t read any of her noir novels. But I have now read all three of her contemporary novels, which are nothing alike except for this: she does adolescent girls so well.
The Fever tells the story of the Nash family: Tom, the divorced dad; Eli, the hockey star, and Deenie, the daughter. Mostly this is Deenie’s story, and her friends. Her tribe, really: Lise and Gabby, and the other girls like Kim and Brooke and the white-haired Skye who are on the fringes. Well, Skye is starting to become more central, especially to Gabby. One seemingly-ordinary school day (except for what happened to Deenie the night before, in the car with Sean Lurie), Lise has a seizure, right in the middle of class. This is the start of a sort of contagion rushing through the high school girls, an epidemic of nervous-seeming conditions, fainting and public vomiting and even more seizures.
Some of the early reviews compared this to The Crucible. (Another book I read in tenth grade!) As one of the topics that fascinated me in high school was the witch trials in Puritan America, this seemed like a perfect mix for me. And it gave me exactly what it promised: a moody, atmospheric story with a mystery at its heart, but not its soul. Its soul is the way that girls find their tribe, and the way the tribe refuses to stay together. The process of just beginning to figure out what it means to be yourself, but at this time when your body and your mind are feverish with everything that makes up adolescence. Also secrets, and envy, and a little bit of obsession.
I loved it.
But, I confess: I didn’t love it as much as Dare Me.
I can’t really pin down why, exactly. I just didn’t care as much about the characters. And I think I was hoping for more witchy behavior, which didn’t happen until near the end.
But that’s OK because The Fever didn’t promise me it would be better than Dare Me. And it fit so squarely into my life right now, as one of the characters whose point of view we see the story through is Tom Nash, Deenie’s father, and I so related to his struggles. Sometimes, when you are the parent of a teenager—quite often, in fact—there just isn’t an answer. There’s not a book or a magazine article or an expert on adolescents to give you advice. It’s just you, trying to know what to do when you don’t know what to do. Tom is in that position nearly the entire novel, and his responses aren’t always perfect, but he manages, and it gave me a little bit of hope that I will manage too.
Near the end, Tom is talking to another teacher at the high school. She’s telling him a story about a girl she knew in high school, the coolest girl, and the tattoo she had. Then she shows Tom a little part of her own tattoo. “And so,” Tom said. “Marked for life.”
“That’s what high school does,” the teacher responds.
I don’t know if that’s true for everyone, but it holds true for me. How it marks us, in ways both extraordinary and common, is what Abbott is so good at writing and why I will always read her.