I am not Clare Beams’ target audience; I read little historical fiction, and enjoy even less. That said, I recommend The Illness Lesson highly to lovers of the genre. Beams not only captures the facts of the early 19th century, but also the feel. If you’re at all interested in the development of gendered social mores, or the progression of ideology with respect to sex and education, Beams’ debut delivers. Further, I personal found Beams’ engagement with the question of health and illness—who defines “sick”?—incredibly interesting. That said, for those readers drawn only to the advertised elements of magical realism, skip The Illness Lesson. The surreal elements are dressing—the meat is firmly grounded in reality.
“It’s not a competition, girls,” said Samuel. “We know you are all suffering. What would help us most is to understand what it feels like—precisely what it feels like, and in particular what your inner reactions were at the moment you first realized you were becoming ill.”
That moment, it seemed, would solve everything in his mind. That threshold each of them had passed: this moment, well; the next moment, sick. Caroline could forgive him. She had imagined it that way, too. But she was beginning to think sickness might work differently, less like crossing a border than entering slowly, a fog that didn’t announce itself in any clear leading edge.
“You’ll see,” Hawkins told them. “These girls will soon be quite healthy again. Good as new!”
As if the only way to be good were to be new, despite all the same flesh, bones, loves, will you had ever had. As if to be healthy meant having no history.