The Short Version: One day in class, a teenager girl suddenly has a massive and harrowing seizure. And within days, several other girls have had similar episodes. Is it the HPV vaccine they were all given? Is it the water from the lake in town? Is it something else entirely? Is it nothing at all? One family charts a course through the turbulent weeks and ends up being, whether they knew or not, at the epicenter of the whole event.
The Review: Hysteria is an incredible thing. The most rational human beings can get swept up in it, as though it were a riptide – and suddenly they wake up adrift. The best example of American hysterical ‘literature’ is (for my money anyway) still Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a play to which this novel absolutely tips its hat in acknowledgement. The Salem witch hunts are the historical ur-text for everything that has come since in this country, from McCarthyism to post-9/11 xenophobia. But it turns out sometimes the hysteria is a little more focused and a little more inexplicable.
Apparently, in 2011, there was an ‘outbreak’ in a town called Le Roy, NY of tics, seizures, and verbal outbursts – not unlike what happens here in the novel. Several teenagers (all girls and one boy) suddenly developed these symptoms and no one could figure out what the hell was going on. That case (according to the quick research I did) eventually resolved itself and turned out to largely be a case of mass psychogenic illness / conversion disorder that spawned from one girl who had developed Tourette’s – but the concept is a rich one for not only a hysteria story but an examination of teenage culture today.
It wouldn’t do to give away the reality behind the story in Dayton; part of the novel’s charm is how gripping it is without ever tipping over into pandemic-novel hysteria. Other people panic, but the writing remains simply tense, twisting the reader around the possibilities. It’s a remarkable achievement, really, to make even an educated and sane reader consider – just consider, even briefly – the possibility that maybe it was the vaccine that did this. That educated and sane reader understands, of course, that that’s ridiculous but Abbott lands the hook early and tugs just hard enough that the reader’s brain is pulled into the hysteria of the town. And that’s really the thing: the reader is in the middle of this all, breathless. So often, the hysteria is too clear, to the point of becoming too authorial. It’s manic while you’re in it but artificial in that it doesn’t stick around outside the bounds of the covers. This novel’s hysteria, on the other hand, lingers when you’re not reading it. It is so all-encompassing and so widely defined in the story that your own brain takes over and begins to churn, even despite itself.
But also, the starkness and honesty of the teens in this book (it’s a similar, although not quite as assured, representation to what you’ll find in Tana French’s The Secret Place) is as important if not more so than the ‘disease’ plot. Some of this comes off a little heavy-handed at times – especially in Tom’s scenes. He’s the father to Deenie and Eli, the two kids who seem to be somehow at the heart of the problem, and he consistently has these moments of saying ridiculous things about “how can we let our daughters into this world?!” and while the sentiments are absolutely correct and people do say those things in real life… they never sound anything but contrived. Even when they’re said in real life. An interesting conundrum to be sure – but such is the cost of living lives so intertwined with art.
It’s the scenes with the kids where it really clicks. Eli, effortlessly handsome and assured (although it sounds like he’s a bit more of a tomcat than any high schooler could ever be – or are kids really just having that much sex?), grapples with the realities of his life and the questioning of whether or not he’s becoming the man he wants to be. And Deenie – poor Deenie. The novel opens, essentially, with her losing her virginity and she never really gets a chance to talk about this with anyone. The panic strikes too quickly – so she’s having to deal with all of that while also having entered this ‘whole new world’. And that’s really what the novel ends up being about: that the teenage years are thorny and messy as hell on their own, without helicopter parents or strange external forces involved. People do stupid things, not because they’re stupid but because they don’t know. They don’t know any better. They’re trying to figure themselves out while still presenting a cohesive front to the world.
If anything, that’s the cliché of sorts that rings true: that we shouldn’t expect so much of our kids. In a time of increased standardized testing, higher pressures to ‘succeed’ by someone else’s standards, it’s no surprise that this novel is based in a real story. Yes, Abbott uses it to look specifically at sexuality and jealousy – especially amongst the females of the species – but these other girls who suffer inexplicably, without connection… stress isn’t even the right word for it. Because stress is what they’re under every day anyway, just by virtue of being a teenager. Add all these other things to the mix, societally? We should be surprised that this doesn’t happen more often.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. The more I think about it, the more I think that some of the language & characterization at times does get a little trope-y. And there are moments that feel a little like they’re trying to hard to land the point that has already landed just by virtue of the circumstances. But at the heart of it, this is a surprisingly scary novel – I’d even maybe call it horror. Not that anything particularly Scary or Horror-Novel-y happens… but it’s more about the paranoia, the sense that no one knows what’s going on and even when the reveal comes, you realize that there’s still no real way to explain it all. The human body does strange things, even to adults – so imagine what it’s like when you’re 15 and there are tons of strange things happening anyway. Then something externally weird happens and… well, it’s a small and tightly packed horror, but it’s a horror nonetheless.