'Fever' Author Mary Beth Keane's Top Novels About Illness
Why are we so fascinated by illness? Mary Beth Keane's new novel, "Fever," is based on one of the most notorious figures in medical history: Mary Mallon, a.k.a. "Typhoid Mary." The first person diagnosed as an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid, Mallon was presumed to have infected 51 people in her career as a cook before she was forced to live in isolation for the last three decades of her life--even though she herself was perfectly healthy. In "Fever," Keane brings the much-maligned Mallon--once known as "the most dangerous woman in America," back to life. Here, Keane picks the most inspiring, devastating and fascinating stories about disease as told through some of literature's richest stories, from Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women" to Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar."
This slim historical novel is based on the true story of Mary Saunders, a prostitute in 18th-century London who is prone to violence when she can't have what she wants. Thanks to her occupation she picks up a nasty case of gonorrhea, and after trying to cope with it for a while, she eventually heads to a hospital that specializes in prostitutes willing to repent. And that's just the first half! Her actions in the second half of the novel would make a strong case for mental illness.
Leukemia: "A Tiny Feast"
This miraculous story, taken from "The Great Night," about a boy with leukemia captures humanity at its most powerless, and somehow makes us laugh along the way. It's been called a fantasy because, I suppose, the guardians of the boy are Titania and Oberon in all their magical glory, but somehow, the more spells they cast, the more human they become. It is a story about the recognition of love, and for me, it is perfection.
Cancer: "People Like That Are the Only People Here"
This is another story that takes place in a pediatric cancer ward, and details the disorienting transition from being a parent of healthy boy to a parent of a boy with cancer. In typical Lorrie Moore fashion, it's full of humor and hope.
Scarlet Fever: "Little Women"
I like to imagine generations of female readers curling up with "Little Women," all of us sobbing as Beth finally dies (inevitable from the first moment the reader met her). The immediate cause of death was never made clear, but we know she had scarlet fever years before, and never fully recovered. Oh, sweet Beth!
Mental Illness: "The Bell Jar"
It's impossible to separate the story of Esther Greenwood from the story of the writer who created her, and I'm not so sure we should try. Considering them together becomes a kind of meta-fiction about mental illness, and as the reader hopes that Esther somehow finds solace, she will also hope that writing this novel brought Plath a modicum of peace.
Mary Beth Keane was born in New York City to Irish parents. She attended Barnard College and the University of Virginia, where she received an MFA in Fiction. In 2011, she was named by Julia Glass to the National Book Foundation’s "5 Under 35.” Author of "The Walking People," she lives in Pearl River, New York, with her husband and their two sons.