Fever: A Novel

Fever: A Novel

by Mary Beth Keane


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The “infectiously readable” (Vanity Fair) novel about the woman known as “Typhoid Mary,” who becomes, “in Keane’s assured hands…a sympathetic, complex, and even inspiring character” (O, The Oprah Magazine).

Mary Beth Keane, named one of the 5 Under 35 by the National Book Foundation, has written a spectacularly bold and intriguing novel about the woman known as “Typhoid Mary,” the first person in America identified as a healthy carrier of Typhoid Fever.

On the eve of the twentieth century, Mary Mallon emigrated from Ireland at age fifteen to make her way in New York City. Brave, headstrong, and dreaming of being a cook, she fought to climb up from the lowest rung of the domestic-service ladder. Canny and enterprising, she worked her way to the kitchen, and discovered in herself the true talent of a chef. Sought after by New York aristocracy, and with an independence rare for a woman of the time, she seemed to have achieved the life she’d aimed for when she arrived in Castle Garden. Then one determined “medical engineer” noticed that she left a trail of disease wherever she cooked, and identified her as an “asymptomatic carrier” of Typhoid Fever. With this seemingly preposterous theory, he made Mallon a hunted woman.

The Department of Health sent Mallon to North Brother Island, where she was kept in isolation from 1907 to 1910, then released under the condition that she never work as a cook again. Yet for Mary—proud of her former status and passionate about cooking—the alternatives were abhorrent. She defied the edict.

Bringing early-twentieth-century New York alive—the neighborhoods, the bars, the park carved out of upper Manhattan, the boat traffic, the mansions and sweatshops and emerging skyscrapers—Fever is an ambitious retelling of a forgotten life. In the imagination of Mary Beth Keane, Mary Mallon becomes a fiercely compelling, dramatic, vexing, sympathetic, uncompromising, and unforgettable heroine.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781451693423
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 03/18/2014
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 126,054
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Mary Beth Keane attended Barnard College and the University of Virginia, where she received an MFA. She has been named one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35,” and was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship for fiction writing. She currently lives in Pearl River, New York with her husband and their two sons. She is also the author of The Walking People, Fever, and Ask Again, Yes.

What People are Saying About This

Eleanor Henderson

"Like the silent carrier who is its heroine, this novel is so quietly assured that you won’t suspect it capable of transmitting such violence. It will seize you with its breathtaking intensity, its authority, and its beating heart.

Billy Collins

Fever manages to rescue a demonized woman from history and humanize her brilliantly. Mary Beth Keane brings to light a moving love story behind the headlines, and she carries the reader forward with such efficiency, you will hardly notice how graceful are her sentences and how entwined you have become with this fascinating, heart-breaking story.”

Julia Glass

Fever is a gripping, morally provocative story of love and survival that will take you by surprise at every turn. It is also a radiant portrait of a uniquely indomitable woman and of a uniquely tumultuous time in the history of our country. Bravely and brilliantly, Keane has brought to life the intimate human tragedy obscured by the scornful cliché ‘Typhoid Mary’; you will never utter those words again without remembering, and mourning, the real Mary Mallon.”

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Fever includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book clubThe suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Mary Mallon was a brave, headstrong Irish immigrant who journeyed alone to America. She began as a laundress, but with an innate talent for cooking, Mary ascended the domestic service ladder and worked as a cook for upper-class families. Unbeknownst to Mary, she left a trail of Typhoid fever and death in her wake. One “medical engineer,” proposing a new theory of “asymptomatic carriers,” traced the fever back to the woman we now know as “Typhoid Mary.” To prevent Mary from further spreading the disease, the New York Department of Health isolated her on North Brother Island for three years. A condition of her release was that she would never cook professionally again. But Mary’s passion for cooking, combined with the meager alternatives available to her, propelled her to defy the edict. In Fever, Mary Beth Keane brings early twentieth century New York City alive—the neighborhoods, the bars, the mansions, the factories, the rising skyscrapers and the perils of city life. Keane’s retelling of Typhoid Mary’s life transforms a tabloid interest into a complex and unforgettable character.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. The story of Mary Mallon exemplifies a conflict between personal liberty and public health. Examine both sides of this conflict, discuss whether you think Mary’s case was handled well, and consider how it would have been dealt with today.

2. In early twentieth century New York, class and background dictated a person’s prospects. Find moments in the text when people discriminated against Mary as a poor Irish woman. How does Mary handle these situations? Are there any instances when Mary uses her identity to an advantage?

3. Mary and Alfred live together as an unmarried couple. Many people felt these circumstances were inappropriate, and the issue arises repeatedly. Are there any consequences to their situation? Would things have turned out differently had Alfred proposed to Mary?

4. The vibrant image of Mary’s hat, “cobalt blue with silk flowers and berries cascading around the brim” (p. 63) stays with her during her exile on North Brother and into the future. What does the hat symbolize for Mary? Consider when Mary encounters Mrs. Bowen wearing the exact same hat; Mrs. Bowen maintains that her hat is “similar, Mary, not identical. But I see what you mean.” (p.67) Why does Mrs. Bowen deny that she has the same hat as her cook?

5. Alfred constantly moves between various odd jobs in the city and in Minnesota, while Mary seems to have few choices: cooking (or baking), laundry, and factory work. Discuss how gender affects the characters’ options during this time. Consider Alfred and Mary, as well as the others in their building (Mila Boriello, Fran Mosely, Joan Graves, Jimmy Tiernan), Liza Meaney, and John Cane.

6. The media, particularly the newspapers, play a significant role in Mary’s story. Reread the article printed at the beginning of the novel. (p. 14) How do reporters influence the outcome of Mary’s trial?

7. Compare Mary’s situation to the case of the dairy farmer upstate. Why and how were they handled differently?

8. Mary has a justified distrust of doctors and others in the medical profession, especially after learning that the gall bladder surgery so emphatically pushed on her would have been completely futile. Later, when the doctors try to explain the way germs and disease spread, to Mary it “sounded like a fairy tale meant for children, a little world too small for the human eye to see, or like religion, in that they were asking her to believe such a thing existed without giving her a chance to look at it, hold it, understand it.” (p. 232) Consider the portrayal of the medical profession throughout the story. Compare Mary’s experiences with doctors to Alfred’s after his injuries. How do the doctors mislead Alfred?

9. Mary is an extremely headstrong and stubborn character. Yet, when Alfred refuses to taper off his medicine at the reduction clinic, Mary does not protest at all. Why does Mary let Alfred descend so far into addiction?

10. After her first release from North Brother, Mary abides by her promise not to cook. But as time passes she eventually is drawn back to the profession: first at the bakery, and then at the hospital. How does she justify her decisions, despite the risk to others? Do you think she believes she is responsible for passing Typhoid through her cooking? Why or why not? At what point does she give in to the reality of her predicament?

11. The story is split into three sections: ‘Habeas Corpus’, ‘Liberty’ and ‘His Banner Over Me Is Love. Discuss what each part-title illustrates about the events that happen within the section.

142 Why do you think the Epilogue comes from Mary’s own voice, in the first person? How does this shift affect your reading of the final pages of the story? Do you gain any further insight into Mary’s character from these pages?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Alfred uses the Oppenheimer cure to conquer his alcoholism. Research and discuss this method: What exactly does it entail? When did it become popular? What were the success rates? Were there other ‘cures’ prevalent during this time?

2. Find an article about the real Mary Mallon. How does your reading fit into Mary Beth Keane’s fictional version of Typhoid Mary?

3. Mary Mallon was one of the first healthy carriers to be discovered, but subsequently many more were identified. Research and share your findings on healthy carriers of disease. How did the government handle similar individuals in the future?

Customer Reviews

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Fever 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
TeacherAnne28 More than 1 year ago
An unforgettable story of life in New York City at the beginning of the 20th century. You will learn how patients with consumption (TB) and Typhoid Fever were treated by the medical profession. Also, life in New York City at this time is vividly portrayed. Historical fiction book fans will love this book.
MaureenST More than 1 year ago
Reading about Mary Mallon, you feel the injustice that was done to her. Yet, if it were my child or relative that died, I certainly would feel differently. She was stripped of her life, literally, and put on an island in the Hudson River, North Brother Island. Left with very little contact, to the outside world. How could they do that to her? Written up in the press as Germ Lady, Typhoid Mary. Yet a dairyman who also is a carrier of the germ, is allowed to stay at home. He killed over a hundred people. Yes, Mary is credited with about 20 deaths. Mary is a spunky Irish immigrant, and pulls herself up from being a laundress to an exceptional cook. She wins raves from everyone who tastes her food. It is Mary's downfall. It is her passion, and yet people she has loved die. Mary Beth Keane has brought Mary Mallon to life, we meet the love of her life Alfred. Mary is content to live as Alfred's mistress, back in the late 1800's. That in itself had to be difficult. She was a woman before her time, living on the edge. Yet the people who loved Mary, really loved Mary, for who she was to them. When Mary, after three years, is finally let to return to her life, she is admonished to never take a job as a cook. Her passion is taken from her! Can she ever completely give cooking up? Her reasoning says that she has cooked for so many, and none of her friends have gotten sick? You are going to find this to be a very compelling historical read, and not going to put it down, until it is done. You will root for Mary, even though, we find her breaking the law?? What law? Don't miss this excellent story. I received this book through the Publisher Scribner, and Net Galley, and was not required to give a positive review.
-TheLadyinPurple More than 1 year ago
Perfectly thought-provoking and fascinating from a medical stand point, a study of early 20th century human behavior and an around engrossing historical read, Fever is a fictional account about Mary Mallon and her unfortunate claim to fame as America's first identified asymptomatic carrier of Typhoid fever. The reader is immediately plunged into the controversial years surrounding Mary Mallon's service record as a hired cook for some of New York's elite and powerful, the atmosphere of the era is then introduced describing in detail the unsanitary conditions of New York and the gloom, expected death and sickness that sadly was a common occurrence of life. And then finally the reader is spun around to reexamine and question if Mary Mallon was really a victim of the times she lived and became a target for the growing hysteria and paranoia already directed toward the Irish or simply a callous stubborn woman who thumbed her nose at the medical community and continued to spread the bacterium Salmonella Typhi through her unhygienic cooking techniques? History and medical journals has painted Mary Mallon only one way and now we have another opportunity to reexamine the woman behind the infamous name, in Mary Beth Keane's Fever. In the end, I thought Fever was a generally captivating read and fictional story of Mary Mallon and the infancy of Epidemiology. I was immediately drawn by Ms. Keane's use of description and flare with storytelling. At the same time however, the story did sputter at times and became bloated with uninteresting characters and chapters. The theme seemed to shift from medical-historical fiction to unexpected romance that contained anachronistic dialogue, phrases and actions. Another view of the cat-and-mouse games that crept into the story would have been a great alternative to the romance. Still Fever is an overall noteworthy debut that should find its way on the shelves of those who are interested in the history of disease, fictional accounts of the misunderstood scapegoats of history or those who just love a good story.
dayzd89 More than 1 year ago
4.5 stars I think it's pretty safe to say we've all come across the term Typhoid Mary at some point in our lives. But now that I know the history behind the term, I find myself not liking that phrase at all. Fever is a fascinating portrayal of a woman, an era, a specific time in New York City that is described in breath taking detail. Perhaps there will be a lot of people that will still find Mary Mallone a villain, that she was widely aware of her actions and the repercussions that would follow. I hated the way Mary was treated, and she was definitely demonized as a woman because I'm 100% sure that if she were a man, it would have been different. But the novel is much more than Mary Mallone's struggle. It's about her independent spirit, her relationship with Alfred and her other friends. I think Mary Beth Keane did a great job putting a human face to Mary Mallone, and I will never think of her as merely 'Typhoid Mary'. I really do believe that Mary did not want to hurt anyone, and unfortunately she has been marked as a criminal by history, but this novel really does her justice. I highly recommend it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have read both her books. Great reads. I highly recommend them. This book was fascinating. A++++ job.
LisaDunckley More than 1 year ago
I knew that Typhoid Mary was a real person, who'd unknowingly infected people with Typhoid Fever, and that after she agreed not to continue working as a cook she did so anyway. ...And that is ALL I knew. Mary Beth Keane's book gives life to Mary Mallon's story. Mary came to the US from Ireland, and she was brave, strong, proud, and determined. She was a talented cook, and that was part of the problem. As we now know, Mary was an asymptomatic carrier of Typhoid. She worked her way up the servant scale from a laundress to a cook, and as she worked for families she left a trail of illness and death. Mary was in denial about carrying Typhoid. She had never, to her recollection, been sick with Typhoid, and in fact was never sick at all, she was gleaming with health her whole life. She had special abilities as a cook, and as anyone would, she wanted to exercise her skills. She got lots of praise and respect as a cook. In addition, a job as a cook paid THREE TIMES what a laundress job paid. So it's impossible to blame Mary for wanting to continue on as a cook. When the doctors decided that Mary was a carrier, they literally kidnapped her and hospitalized her, then locked her on an island normally used to isolate people who had diseases like leprosy. Unsurprisingly, this did not make her want to cooperate! She didn't understand the science behind what they were saying—and to be fair, they had a lot of it wrong too. For awhile, they were convinced that she stored Typhoid in her gall bladder, and they tried to force her to let them remove it. She refused, and later they admitted that theory was wrong. So again, it's difficult to blame Mary for not understanding or wanting to work with the doctors to resolve the issue. And yet—Mary was the equivalent of a loaded weapon. She killed people, albeit indirectly through ignorance and negligence. So of course she couldn't be just let alone, to continue infecting people and taking lives. From the perspective of time, when we understand the science better, and we know the historical outcome, it seems that they might have made more progress by reasoning with Mary, or perhaps even by simply paying her the the wages she would have made as a cook and not putting her in a position where she was tempted to break her parole in order to work in the kitchen for the money. Although this book is historical fiction, and obviously Mary's thoughts and conversations are guessed at, the broad outlines of the facts that we know are accurate, and I enjoyed it tremendously.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
senated More than 1 year ago
"Fever" is relevant today . This is an excellent story about "Typhiod Mary" , an Irish immigrant who cooked for wealthy New York families in the early 1900's. While she showed no signs of typhoid herself, many people she cooked for died of typhoid. She was arrested and quarantined against her wil causing a complicated personal life. After being released she resumed her cooking, only to be quarantined again, for the rest of her life.  Today's Ebola crisis draws an interesting parallel to "Typhoid Mary" and whether or not her treatment was justified or criminal.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
StacieRosePittard More than 1 year ago
Two stars because it was well researched and stuck relatively true to history. However it doesn't get much better than that. Unfortunately all of the researched historical parts were rushed through, and I felt like Mary Mallon accidentally spreading Typhoid was just a detail in the background. The majority of the book was a very badly written romance novel, which is not exactly what I wanted when I choose to read a book about "typhoid Mary". Maybe her relationship in the book was supposed to help humanize her, but it shouldn't have dominated the novel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Reallyenjoyed this book it just flowed and brought you into the story very fast you felt you knew mary mallon was also very informative from point of view that we all would have heard of thyfoid mary but knew nothing about her i enjoyed this book from start to finish and was sorry coming to the final pages that i at the end
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Historical novel about Typhoid Mary, her life, her relationships, her incarceration, and New York in the early 1900's. Couldn't put it down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great book
Christmas0 More than 1 year ago
While I heard the phrase, "typhoid Mary" I never knew the real story behind it. I enjoyed the book but found at times it to be rather dull and not as in depth as I would have enjoyed.