The 1918 influenza pandemic is the background for this absorbing successor to Bee Season (2000).
Irish-American Lydia Kilkenny moves up from her “Southie” (i.e., South Boston) neighborhood after marrying timid medical student Henry Wickett. When Henry forsakes his studies and returns to clerical drudgery while developing a health-giving elixir (the eponymous Remedy), Lydia senses trouble—but she agrees to concoct a pleasant-tasting recipe. America enters World War I, Henry tries and fails to enlist, and dies when an “unseasonable flu” strikes Boston—having first formed a partnership with entrepreneur-distributor Quentin Driscoll (who has other plans for Wickett’s Remedy). First returning to her Southie family, Lydia watches numbly as friends and relatives die, volunteers at a local hospital, then works as an untrained nurse at Gallups Island in Boston Harbor, where doctors study the virulent influenza strain by injecting it into volunteers: inmates from nearby Deer Island Naval Prison. Goldberg’s opulent narrative traces the fulfillment of Lydia’s deepest fears, and numerous other voices chime in: those of soldiers and sailors sworn to defeat the Kaiser; ordinary citizens enduring both the war and the epidemic; the numerous dead (rendered as acutely dramatic marginal commentary); and revelations of the history of “QD Soda” (the soft drink Driscoll derived from Lydia’s recipe), its founder’s pathetic decline and his successor’s evasive criminality. Only the QD Soda passages (of which there are far too many) misfire in this rich historical re-creation whose energy and ingenuity evoke memories of E.L. Doctorow’s classic Ragtime, Steven Millhauser’s Pulitzer-winner, Martin Dressler, and Thomas McMahon’s forgotten picaresque mini-masterpiece McKay’s Bees.
A fine novel very much in the American vein, and a quantum leap forward for the gifted Goldberg.