The Illness Lesson

Doubleday. Feb. 2020. 288p. ISBN 9780385544665. pap. $26.95;. F
DEBUT In 1871, scholar/philosopher Samuel Hood lives in Ashwell, MA, on a farm that was previously the site of a utopian community experiment. That experiment has long since failed, and Hood’s new plan is to educate young women to be equals to their male counterparts. Hood and adult daughter Caroline, a devotee of his philosophy, will head up the faculty. The students arrive, including one connected to the farm’s previous function. But a secret lies waiting to be revealed, and the students soon begin to show signs of illness. One has a strange rash. Another has a verbal tic. A third has “fits.” Hood calls on a psychiatric physician he knows to treat the girls for what seems to be group hysteria. The psychiatrist’s sinister treatment, amounting to sexual abuse, is condoned by the men at the farm despite their misgivings and Caroline’s outright protests.
VERDICT Bard Prize winner Beams (We Show What We Have Learned) successfully shapes the characters who tell the story, capturing the mores of the times and delving deeply into the psychological aspects of the situation. The underlying secret creates a tension that is resolved only in the final pages. Readers of general fiction will enjoy. [See Prepub Alert, 8/5/19.]

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