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Just What I Needed

Fever: Week 3 Discussion

Read With Us

Welcome to the final Read With Us book discussion for Fever!

Please join the discussion by leaving a comment here on the blog. I'll be responding to your comments directly IN the comments, so please do check back once in a while to see how the discussion is going this week. Please feel free to respond to other commenters as well.

As Carole and Bonny have already explained, this time around we've got an added bonus to participating in the book discussion. We have put together a “book lovers' surprise package” to be given to one lucky Fever reader! Just leave a comment on any of our book discussion blog posts. Your name will be placed in a hat EACH time you make a comment — so the more you share, express your opinions, and comment, the more chances you have to win the prize. The winner will be revealed as part of our wrap-up post on February 25!


Now.  On with our discussion!


It's kind of interesting to host the final discussion.  I'm already privy to many of your thoughts and insights about the book, based on your comments in our earlier discussions hosted by Carole and Bonny.  I know, for example, that many of you felt that the book would have been stronger with more attention paid to Dr. Soper, and with perhaps more focus on the factors that led to the link between Mary Mallon and her identification as an asymptomatic carrier of Typhoid Fever.  I also know that while most of us agree that it's critical to protect public health, we also feel that Mary Mallon was treated unfairly because she was a poor immigrant -- and a woman, to boot.

What else can I even ask . . . in this 3rd and final discussion?


First, let's talk about Alfred, shall we?

The character of Mary's long-time partner, Alfred Briehof - a German immigrant with addiction problems, a spotty work ethic, and commitment issues - was not based on an actual person in Mary's life (according to the available historical records and details). While it is nice to think that Mary had a "special someone" to share her life with, it seems to me that the author gave the character Alfred a lot of "space" in the story (even allowing him his own "point of view" for a few rather confusing chapters there in the middle of the book).

What did you think of Alfred?  Did the relationship between Mary and Alfred help you understand Mary's life choices better?  Did their life together ring true in this particular historical setting and context?  Did you think Mary's behavior toward Alfred was consistent with the rest of her character?  What do you think of the author's choice to focus attention so heavily on Alfred?


Next, let's talk about Fever as a work of historical fiction.

The book is classified as historical fiction. It is factually based on a real-life, historical person (Mary Mallon) and features many key events in her history.  It is also fictional -- bringing the past to life for readers by embellishing Mary's life with fabricated details.  Many people in the story were historical figures:  Dr. Soper, the Warren family of Oyster Bay, Dr. Biggs, Josephine Baker, and Ernst Lederle, for example.  And the book tied in some real-life events to help cement the setting and timeline:  the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and the sinking of the Titanic, for example.  Yet the majority of characters, situations, and conversations are fictional.

How do you think this worked in Fever?  Did you notice any things in the book that seemed out of place or time, given the historical setting?  Did the characters speak and act like people would have done in that period of time/in that situation?  Did the book feel authentic to you?  Why or why not?


And, finally, let's talk about Mary herself.  

Many of us, in our comments in the earlier discussions, mentioned that we didn't feel that we really got to know Mary Mallon.  She seemed enigmatic to us -- sometimes independent, confident, and stubborn, but other times . . .  well, not so much . . . taking on work that would get her in trouble, for example, just so she could feed her boyfriend's addiction.

Do you think this was the author's intent -- to keep us at arm's length from Mary?  Are there things the author might have done differently to draw us closer to Mary?  Were you surprised at how Mary reacted/responded to Alfred's drug addiction given how she handled other situations in her life?  Do you think you may have enjoyed the book more if you could understand (and maybe even cheer for) Mary?  


Would you recommend this book to others?


Be sure to join us next Tuesday over at Bonny's . . . as we wrap up this go 'round of Read With Us and announce the winner of our "book lovers' surprise package!"



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Oh, Alfred...there is so much to say. I found everything about this relationship not believable, as well as the lack of reaction from those around them. I really don't think co-habitation was at all "the norm". I assumed he was included because he was part of Mary's life but learning he was not made it all the more confusing as to why he was added. He did not bring anything to the story that made it better in my view.

I think that the setting seemed authentic, but I struggled with Mary's attitude, which to me seemed very out of place for the time. With all things considered, despite the setting "feeling right" I think the book as a whole fell short on authenticity.

There were times that I did feel badly for Mary during her forced imprisonment, and while it seemed like at times she wanted to take the hands of friendship that were extended, she liked holding on to the "chip on her shoulder". She was a person who my nana would say would cut off their nose to spite their face! I think, in the end - for me at least, Mary had no redeeming qualities.

Finally... I would not recommend this book to others. (but I am looking forward to what everyone else thought!)


I am very far behind. In fact, I have just reached those few rather confusing chapters about Alfred... I began reading the first paragraph of the first chapter before closing the book last night and thought HUH???

Here's the thing for me... I think this would have been a better book had it been about someone else and Mary was a supporting character rather than the focus. Or it should have been about Typhoid Tina, with Mary as inspiration. I'm so confused by it all! I've been reading it and talking about it and find myself saying, "I don't know if that part's true," "I don't know if that really happened." ARGHHH. I think that's my biggest problem with this book... maybe historical fiction isn't my thing.

Plus, I just don't like her or him... rolled my eyes a few too many times. I doubt that I'll finish it, and I wouldn't recommend it.


Hoo-Boy! First of all, I did like the book (I may be the only one?). But I was just getting over a reading slump and this was the first book I started and finished in some time…so that may be part of it.

There is just so much to not like about Alfred! BUT, I don’t think his character is that far removed from men at that time. I don’t believe that women were treated very well by anyone “back in the day” and had to fight for so much. Not everyone and certainly not all men treated women that way, but many did. I’m not clear why the author included Alfred (especially since he isn’t one of the “real” characters in the book) – and especially the section dealing with just him. All of that didn’t make sense to me. I agree that co-habitation wasn’t common back then, but I don’t believe it was unheard of either.

The setting seemed authentic to me. I keep going back to the filth in the streets, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, etc. And, of course, the treatment of poor, immigrant women as opposed to wealthy WASP males.

Overall, I did like the book. I do believe it would have been better with more emphasis on Dr. Soper and less (or none?) on Alfred.


I arrived here to add my two cents, but find that Kat has already said everything I was going to say: I agree with her on all counts, including not being able to recommend this book. I was surprised to learn, Kym, that Alfred was completely fictional. That indeed makes it all the more puzzling that he was given so much ink. In the author's notes, she said this was her first attempt at historical fiction. Unfortunately, it showed.


I didn't mind the book but listening always makes it more likely I'll finish something that may be questionable. Though I didn't like Mary much I do believe she did love Alfred or he was all she knew since the relationship started at such a young age. The living together seemed unusual for the period but what do I know! That said, the environment of the tenement, the treatment by employers at the laundry and the bakery all seemed to ring true to the period for me.

As far as her support of Alfred I will go back to it seems that it was all she knew. Based on her behavior in most other circumstances, she should have been less tolerant of him (and thrown the bum out!) but the relationship did give her a softer side.

I too would have liked to know more about Dr. Soper (who I think completely used Mary to forward his own career) and why she really was treated differently. Would I recommend the book - not likely.


I was annoyed by the amount of time the author spent on Alfred and his relationship with Mary, I felt it took away from Mary's story.
Although the setting felt authentic, Mary's relationship with Alfred did not. I don't think co-habitation was common and was probably forbidden by many landlords. I felt the author was trying to use Mary's relationship with Alfred to explain her failure to comply with the medical advice of not cooking for others and this painted a negative picture of Mary.
Overall, I really wanted to read more about Dr. Sloper and not about Alfred at all.


For me, this book would have been much better if the author had not included Alfred at all. I stumbled upon a Coursera course on historical fiction where Keane said that he was semi-invented, based only on Soper mentioning in his writings that Mary was seen with a man who frequented bars and had a dog. I'll never understand why Keane chose to focus on him so much, including handing over the whole narrative when he didn't reveal anything to me about Mary and her story.

The setting felt authentic, but some of the real-life events felt like they were added for authenticity. Like everyone else, I had trouble with Mary's actions and attitudes. I don't know why the author would have wanted to keep readers at an arm's length from Mary, but that's how I felt. I never understood Mary and her thinking, and I know I would have enjoyed the book more if I felt like I could have at least cheered for her a little bit.

I do think that Keane chose a very difficult subject to write about. Very few of Mary's original words and writings exist today, so almost everything we learn about her has to come through others. The book would have been much better if it had focused more on Soper and Mary and left the invented Alfred out of it entirely.


The whole thing with Alfred was strange. It was like they were together but not together. Hmm, like they found each other and just stayed together as it was just easier to keep going as they were, they were familiar.

I am glad I read it as I knew nothing about the Typhoid Fever and it was interesting to read about the time period and how it all happened.


I really liked this book, more than I thought. Women's relationships with men, especially in the lower classes, were somewhat one-sided. I don't think there was as much communication as we have today. The effect of just trying to make a living each day in these precarious situations soured the romance aspect. Remember women had no rights, no money , and were subjected to physical abuse.
Mary's origin in Ireland was pretty bleak. I think this hardened her. She had no loving, warm relationships to refer to. So I was not surprised when she was attracted to Albert and all his prickly parts. The author kept Mary at a distance from the reader to show how Mary kept life and feelings at a distance. Thank you..


I'd agree with you on all points, Kat. I think, overall, that the book was fairly authentic . . . but forced. In fact, I felt bludgeoned about the head from time to time. I could have excused most of the bludgeoning (because I feel that way about most historical fiction, truth be told) if not for Alfred. I think he did a lot to detract from Mary's story. At times I wondered if maybe the author was writing one book . . . and then got taken with another idea . . . and did a mash-up??? I think it would have been much better if the book had been about Dr. Soper's quest for answers about communicative diseases, with Mary in a starring role. Sadly, that's not the book we read. (And yet . . . there has been rich discussion! Sometimes I think the books we don't like all that much help us clarify the things we DO LIKE in books. . . )


I agree with you, Vicki! (And after more than a couple of eye rolls, I know the book has missed its mark.) I think this book would have been much better if it focused on Dr. Soper and his quest for disease knowledge . .. with Mary in a supporting role. Sadly, that's not the book the author gave us!


I didn't dislike the book, actually. I just felt it had some flaws . . . Alfred being the main flaw. There really isn't much information about Mary available - and especially from her point of view. I imagine the author didn't have a lot to work with -- but I wish she hadn't invented Alfred. to compensate. (Or maybe I just wish her editor had said "no" when she veered off with Alfred as he headed to Minnesota!) I really did a lot of thinking about the Mary and Alfred co-habitation "thing." I wonder how common it really was at the turn of the 20th century? It felt sort of . . . off . . . to me, although I'm not basing that on anything historical or factual. Alfred did seem to have a commitment problem; I imagine Mary would have married him if he'd been willing. I'm glad you enjoyed the book, Vera.


Alfred really was a mystery to me, too! I kept wondering . . . where was her editor???? I do think Vicki made an excellent point: this would have been a more interesting story told from Dr. Soper's point of view -- with Mary in a supporting role.


I kept wondering about the co-habitation arrangement, too. I don't have any actual/historical basis for thinking it would be out of the ordinary for the time, but it didn't quite ring true for me. I imagine in would be very practical (and it was certainly beneficial for Alfred!), but I would think it might cause a lot of problems. (Like you said, though . . . what would I know?) I think Mary would have married Alfred in a heartbeat -- if he was the committing kind. (But he clearly wasn't.) I do think this book would have been better if written from Dr. Soper's point of view, with Mary as a supporting character.


That was my takeaway, too, Debbie -- that the author was using Mary's relationship with Alfred to explain her failure to stick with with her agreement not to cook for others. She was desperate to save Alfred, so she did what she knew she shouldn't . . . and took a cook's job with higher pay. (I also felt the author tried to explain Mary's leaving the laundry on the horrors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Which didn't really work for me either.) I do think the story of Dr. Soper's quest to understand communicative diseases would have made a fascinating story -- with Mary Mallon in a supporting role. Alfred? Not so much.


I don't know that I have much to add to these comments. I generally enjoy historical fiction when it is well done but thought this book could have used more judicious editing. I can't quite figure out why Keane gave Alfred so much space in the story if he didn't exist at all.

It is almost as if the author didn't know exactly how she felt about Mary. The book and subject matter might have been better written as nonfiction where information and sources of information could have been identified. In that case, a writer could say this is documented information and I speculate that this might have happened or Mary might have behaved in this way. For me it just didn't work well as historical fiction.


I absolutely agree. As I was reading, I assumed Alfred must have been "part of the package" -- that he was based on Mary's actual partner, and an essential part of the story. (And that was BEFORE the bewildering seque into the Minnesota woods. . . ) The fact that he was NOT, in fact, based on an historical figure made his inclusion even more baffling to me.

The setting felt fairly authentic, although Keane did keep reminding us about where we were in the historical timeframe -- which felt forced to me (the in-the-background mention of the sinking of the Titanic, for example). I wondered if Keane had mashed up two (or maybe even more?) book ideas together in this one novel? I did read that she had been writing about two Irish immigrant women when she came across information about Mary Mallon and then decided to head off in that direction.

I think a book about Dr. Soper's quest for a better understanding of communicative diseases - with Mary Mallon a supporting character - would have made a more interesting story.


I'm only half way through the book (on the verge of the Alfred bit, I think). I began reading as I began to take my typhoid vaccine (via pills) for an upcoming trip. That was a little eerie. I'm not regretting reading this book, but am a little weirded out to learn Alfred is a fiction. Couldn't she have at least given her a love interest worth pining for?

And yes, I would like to "like" Mary more -- I sympathized, I even felt she was treated unjustly, but. . . still.


I didn't realize that Alfred was entirely fabricated! Knowing that confuses me even more, because I felt that his character was where Keane really missed the mark as far as historical accuracy was concerned. It really was not the thing to "live in sin" at the time, and there were plenty of opportunities for Mary and Alfred to get married if they'd wanted to. I was also frustrated by how much Mary seemed to be enabling him. For someone who was so stubborn in so many other aspects of her life, it seemed incongruous for her to be so weak when it came to Alfred (though, certainly, there are plenty of strong women who enable men with addictions or who are abusive).

You've hit on something that I hadn't been able to put my finger on before -- that Keane keeps Mary at arm's length so we never really know for sure how much she understands and what she really thinks. I think this is what was frustrating me about this book. When the main character is so opaque, it's really hard to root for them.


Yes . . . the relationship was quite complicated, and it didn't quite seem to fit with the rest of Mary's character to me. There didn't seem to be a link between what happened to Mary and her ongoing (on and off) relationship with Albert. I was mostly confused about why she spent so much time on him.

I agree that that it was interesting to read more about Typhoid Fever -- and Typhoid Mary!


I think that's really interesting and insightful -- to think that the author DID keep Mary at a distance from the reader intentionally. That's exactly how I felt as I was reading -- that I couldn't understand Mary and what was making her respond the way she did (in pretty much any situation). She was an unpredictable character to me, so if that was the author's intent . . . I would say it worked! I think the book did quite a good job highlighting the difficulties and challenges for poor women, especially immigrants -- and especially SINGLE women in those circumstances. There was no safety net at all. I kept thinking "no wonder Mary went back to being a cook" -- it was work she loved, she earned respect because she was good at it, and . . . she was able to make a better wage!


I agree, Jane. It almost felt to me . . . that the author mashed two books together for this one. It felt like she was writing one book about Alfred and his two "loves" . . . and then decided that one of his "loves" would be Mary Mallon. Or something. Because Alfred just seemed so incongruous to the story of Mary Mallon.

I think I would have preferred a book about Dr. Soper and his quest to understand communicative diseases -- with Mary Mallon as a supporting character.


I kept waiting to understand the "real Mary" -- but it never happened. She remained a mystery to me throughout the book. I wanted to like her, to understand her. But it really fell short. And the Alfred thing? His character and story felt out of place in the tale of Mary Mallon.

My husband used to travel all around the world for work. Once I opened our refrigerator to find a vial of "live typhoid" vaccine that he had picked up from the pharmacy in advance of one of his trips It took my breath away for a moment! But so happy there IS a vaccine now. Happy travels to you.


I absolutely agree. As I was reading, I assumed Alfred must have been "part of the package" -- that he was based on Mary's actual partner, and an essential part of the story. (And that was BEFORE the bewildering seque into the Minnesota woods. . . ) The fact that he was NOT, in fact, based on an historical figure made his inclusion even more baffling to me.

I read an interview with the author . . . where she explained she had been writing a different book (that one about 2 women, Irish immigrants in New York City at the turn of the 20th century) when she stumbled onto information about Mary Mallon and decided to write (what became) Fever instead. That made me wonder . . . if perhaps the 2 women in the first book were both in love with Alfred . . . and then she decided to make one of them Mary and weave the Mary Mallon storyline in??? It (maybe-sorta) explains the "Frankenstein" nature of the book? Because Alfred just makes the whole thing . . . not work for me!

And if the author WAS holding Mary at arms length on purpose (one commenter here made an interesting and insightful suggestion that perhaps she did so because Mary WAS very opaque in her life), it didn't work at all for me.


I think there's also the possibility that she did it on purpose because she wanted to be respectful to Mary, in a way, by not giving the reader a definitive answer on how much Mary understood her situation -- because she was a real-life person who she couldn't access as a primary source, perhaps she thought ambiguity was the best route to take?

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