Megan Abbott is the queen of the mean girls. From her early novels, which reworked 1940s true crimes into hard-boiled original fiction, to her latest contemporary stories, the Edgar winner has become the mistress of female-centered noir. Like her stunning 2012 book, “Dare Me,” Abbott’s new novel, “The Fever,” focuses on teenage girls and the damage they can do. But do not mistake this for YA. In its exploration of secrets, desire, and guilt, Abbott’s writing is as adult as it gets.
“The Fever” opens with a rite of passage. Dryden High School sophomore Deenie Nash is waiting for something unnamed, with fear and anticipation. “The first time, you can’t believe how much it hurts,” a classmate tells her. “Deenie’s legs are shaking,” she’s so scared. But part of the rite is brazening it out, and so she does.
That encounter (with, it turns out, the school nurse) proves to be not as big a deal as Deenie had feared. Nor is it as sexual as that opening implies. Within pages, however, she finds herself recalling another first time, one with possibly less benign results. And just as she’s mulling over what actually happened with her handsome co-worker at the local pizza joint, Deenie’s world starts to fragment.
First Lise, her startlingly beautiful friend, has a seizure and is hospitalized. Soon after, Deenie’s closest buddy, Gabby, does too. As other young women start exhibiting bizarre symptoms, all eyes are on Deenie, the remaining third of “The Trio Grande,” as her popular older brother has labeled the friends. She alone seems immune to the mystery sickness infecting only the girls in town, and as she struggles to hold her world together, she begins to see the cracks in her perfect friendships.
They are not the only ones splintering. Her classmates’ parents, led by Lise’s distraught mother, are desperate for an explanation, and accusations fly. Was it the mandatory vaccine? Dryden’s polluted lake? Interspersed into Deenie’s story is that of her divorced father, a teacher at the school. But rather than providing a voice of reason, he serves as a window to a world of adults who are as damaged as their daughters, although possibly less driven.
Eli, Deenie’s hockey star brother, also has a narrative. Aggressively pursued by his female fans, he’s as mystified by teen girls as his father is, although his awareness of their sexual exploits is an added source of stress as he watches his only sister mature. A year ago, he recalls, Deenie and Gabby were just girls, Lise a chubby kid. Now his friends are asking about them, and Eli is unsure how to react.
In a way, it’s not up to him. As in Abbott’s previous books, it’s the females who are the actors here. They are the ones who make the moves on the men, more or less, and certainly on each other.
In spare, ferocious language, Abbott captures their energy, a force as nihilistic as it is sexual as Deenie’s classmates battle for attention and social supremacy, much more Salem witch than sugar and spice. For this author, there’s nothing coy or quaint about women coming of age. These young women are brutal to each other and, ultimately, to themselves in ways that mark them forever. “It was partly the eyes,” Deenie notes, seeing herself in the mirror. “[S]omething narrow there, something less bright — but mostly it was the mouth, which looked tender, bruised, and now forever open.”
As tense as it is, “The Fever” isn’t quite as tight as the creepy, wonderful “Dare Me,” with its vicious cheerleaders. The new book’s riff on the HPV vaccine, an early suspect among the parents, feels a bit too ripped from the headlines, and a case of mistaken identity that underpins the central mystery is a little hard to accept. But the beauty of Abbott’s writing, and the skilled way she weaves the men’s lesser narratives into Deenie’s story, make this a standout in contemporary crime fiction. Megan Abbott knows what girls are made of.
15 crime novels.