THE ILLNESS LESSON by Clare Beams
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THE ILLNESS LESSON

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A progressive all-girls school in 1870s Massachusetts is thrown into chaos when its residents begin to experience inexplicable maladies.

Caroline Hood is the daughter of one of the most prominent thinkers in New England. Her father, Samuel, is a widowed essayist best known for a failed social experiment—a sort of utopian village—he attempted when Caroline was a child. This failure was lightly fictionalized in one of the period’s most popular novels, The Darkening Glass. So when Samuel gets the idea to found a rigorous school to teach girls about their “deepest selves” on the site of the failed community, Caroline, now in her late 20s, is apprehensive. This apprehension deepens when one of their pupils, Eliza, turns out to be the daughter of the man who wrote The Darkening Glass. Eliza’s presence is even more disruptive than Caroline and Samuel feared: Though an intelligent and mature student, Eliza seems more interested in prying into the secrets of the Hoods’ past than in her studies. When Eliza suddenly begins manifesting strange physical ailments—seizurelike fits, mysterious markings, hysteria—the other girls soon come down with them, too. Caroline assumes some kind of manipulation; that is, until they start happening to her. When her father calls upon a physician, a family friend who seems to share Samuel’s forward thinking, to treat the girls, the world that Caroline and her father tried to build is in danger, once again, of crashing down. Beams (We Show What We Have Learned, 2016) takes risk after risk in this, her first novel, and they all seem to pay off. Her ventriloquizing of the late 19th century, her delicate-as-lace sentences, and the friction between the unsettling thinking of the period and its 21st century resonances make for an electrifying read.

A satisfyingly strange novel from the one-of-a-kind Beams.

Pub Date: Feb. 11th, 2020
ISBN: 978-0-385-54466-5
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Doubleday
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 2019