Fever by Mary Beth Keane

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I have heard a lot of promising thing about the book. Its about Typhoid Mary(!) and I always read articles about her and I enjoy dramatization of actual people related to medical science. But, I’m plain disappointed by this book. It was a romanticized life of Mary Mallon although a bit dull and dreary but the main focus of this book wasn’t a good representative of her situation. In fact, the attempt to humanize Mary and demonized the doctors involved pretty much reduced the the narrative value of the story.

Compared to “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, Rebecca Skloot had a better understanding as she is scientifically-educated and able to give a greater understanding of the complications revolving the HeLa controversies at it added layers of depth about the complexities of the issues in addition to that she was involved with the Lacks family and the book was realistic enough to be considered as non-fictional. She also explore the problem through several lenses and one of it, definitely not romanticizing the situation. But Keane only offer a plain fictionalization of the era, she skim about the significance of Mary among the scientific society because narratively the story only spin about what the character felt when she was being demonized by the public health society and she is but in turn the book play around the romanticized history around the character and the settings rather than going in depth about it.

Plus, she did cause these deaths by her ignorance and cause more deaths because she persist in her ignorance although she was informed first hand of her role as a Typhoid carrier. Rather than explore various characterization which stem from her nurtured way of thoughts and upbringing that perhaps it can give a sense of depthness to her as a realistic flawed human being. The book seem to be preoccupied in spending its time exploring the romantic elements of Mary Mallon.

Mary Mallon is a scientific enigma of her time and that was as interesting as the depth of her characterizations but I felt the book overplayed the emotional part of her character and it was extremely diverting. I also studied pastry and bakery for a year and from that experience, there was a lot of literary elements you could do to give more flair to Mary’s characterization. There was no culinary passion in this Mary. The book skim on that integral part that made me understand why Mary still continue on with her food service. I don’t feel it clicked to me that she only did all of it to be stubborn and opinionated because that was too one dimensional to describe this once living woman. The book didn’t make me feel Mary was a good cook either. In fact, the book did poorly on her motives to continuously feed people. I don’t think it was that simplistic need to feed people. She could have work as a grocery store if she was that altruistic. Cooking itself need some artistic skills and also require a scientific one too. You have to learn the right way to cook, the subjective taste and the talents in need. The book made Mary’s cooking ability as dull like she’s a food processor. Mary is a smart and independent woman and if she had the right education, she would be a marvelous woman of science herself or even a chemist because personally, food science is a legit science itself. If you know how to cook, you’re scientifically talented as it is. How I know about this? My late grandmother is similar to her in some ways. She had struggled and life is bad and turbulent in Singapore at that time, she also make bad decisions with her love life and she’s a good cook and gave birth to kids who end up being smart and also a scientists and great cook too. I know perfectly well how this situation could have been played in real life and I do sympathize with Mallon and wish things could play out different for her.

Mary Mallon was smarter than this book did on her. It tried to reason around her behaviours but always fall into being portrayed as “emotionally driven”. I still don’t feel the book was right about her motivation to continue to cook.

I get that this book employ literary methods from someone with mostly literary background and can be appreciated by those without scientific background surrounded with the Typhoid Mary issue. But Mary Mallon is a person of significance in science because of her existence that touched all expect of medical issues, epidemiology and human rights. Keane could have done the book better if she discuss this expect more with the world Mary lived in rather than the geographical era accuracy about the fashion, culture and era-specific attitudes. The book could have been better for me if it played about humanizing all the characters more rather than attempting to make Mary as a sympathetic character. I did note that the book didn’t come with its own references so it does made it hard to know which part is real or not. In the end, its still a historical fiction that didn’t make much an impact to me when it should.

And in the end, I didn’t think the author even understand what a Salmonella really is


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